“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

B F Skinner 1964

‘A’ level results were announced last Thursday, so we’ve undertaken a detailed study of the quantum of exams taken, for the second year running: not so much to look at the grades achieved, which are well reported in the media generally, but at subject preferences. The overall quantum of exams taken has fallen for the second year running: on 2016 figures, by a further 2% in 2018 on top of 1% in 2017. 

Although Mathematics comes out on top again, there remains a dearth of subjects which provide a direct grounding in financial awareness. It is indeed extraordinary not to have an examination for a subject which is compulsory in the national curriculum, as also remains the case with GCSEs - where results are expected in a few days’ time: see our commentary on 26th March - 'Investing in the next generation: are we?'.

So in this commentary we look at ‘A’ level subject analysis in some detail, and make no apology for returning to the opportunity for Child Trust Funds to pick up on financial awareness, where the education system is clearly lacking.

There is a marked shift in favour of practical subjects in this year’s ‘A’ level results. The clear winners are Mathematics, the Sciences, Business Studies and Economics, and Computing. In total they increased their exam count by 14,000 against a trend which would otherwise have seen them reduce by 7,500, thus achieving an overall increase of c. 5.5%.

In contrast there have been substantial falls in Geography, English and History: however the largest decrease in mainstream exams taken, both in absolute terms (-5,559) and as a percentage (over -26%) has been Religious Studies. In 2018, just over 20,500 students took the subject: that’s on average three such exams taken in each secondary school in the United Kingdom.

For the world of work and business, the emphasis on Maths, Science and Economics is encouraging. Taken together with the new emphasis on vocational qualifications, this is clearly a bonus just at the time when we need it, given the demands of Brexit. It remains a significant handicap, however, not to be preparing financially aware young adults: but at least there’s an improved training in logic.

The decrease in History was, to some extent, offset by an increase in Political Studies; however Geography is a concern, particularly at a time when will need to know our way around the Far East.

But the drop in Religious Studies is of considerable concern. The world as a whole is not becoming any less religious, and there is a clear need to understand the spiritual journey for people from different backgrounds which they have to take in order to cope with modern life. One only has to think of the recent Burka insult from Boris Johnson, and the deep offence that this has caused to many from the Muslim community, to recognise that need.

It also points to a serious problem for the Christian faith, and the Church of England in particular must urgently tackle the cliff-edge drop in its affiliation among young people.

The two most popular exams taken are Mathematics and Biology but, whereas for boys the top two are Maths and Physics, for girls they remain Biology and Psychology. These latter two open the doors particularly to medical and or counselling lifestyles, where the major employer is the NHS. So, in a world which is rightly concerned to achieve gender equivalence, this continues to beg the question about educational preparation for occupations with different earnings potential.

But it is the absence of preparation for financial capability which causes most concern: just 31,000 Business Studies examinations were taken, and these will focus more on the challenge of running a business than on financial capability.

That’s why making good use of the Child Trust Fund opportunity over the next 11 years is so important. When it was first introduced, Gordon Brown described it as a ‘reform which is progressive and universal, and will strengthen the savings habit of future generations’. It needs to achieve a much higher profile to achieve that objective, but it still has the potential to do so: because it reaches so many young people. See last week's commentary - The Child Trust Fund comes of age - your invitation to the party.

On 1st September, as the oldest recipient receipt reaches 16 years of age, we start an 11 year period during which this potential can be realised, as six million young people have the chance to take control of their account during the two years before they are allowed to access their money (at 18), and to learn financial awareness ‘first hand’. That’s why The Share Foundation and The Share Centre are holding the Child Trust Fund Birthday party on 6th September at the House of Commons, and we hope UK-based listeners with 15 year-olds will come and join us there from 4 pm to 6 pm. If you can attend, please let us know by Friday 31st August.


Gavin Oldham

Share Radio