“Academism results when the reasons for the rule change, but not the rule.”

Igor Stravinsky

Everyone is agreed that grading ‘A’ levels by assessment is far from ideal - but it doesn’t change the subjects that young people have chosen to take in 2020. There is a two-year gestation between choosing your subjects and getting your grades, so our annual deep dive into the subject analysis gives some clue to the post-Brexit priorities and career ambitions of the next undergraduate intake.

As before, the gender differential is stark, and may tell us a lot about the prospects for levelling pay in future.

So, in this commentary we look beyond the agonising over grade adjustments to consider how young people see their future in Britain.

Not surprisingly, the total courses studied in Spanish, French, German and other modern languages have fallen by 12.6% compared to the overall drop of 2.6%. Just under 800,000 subjects were ‘taken’ in 2020, and the biggest single winner was computing, up 11.7%.

Other major losers include History (down 12.8%) and Geography (down 13.6%), whereas Business Studies is up by 6.6%.

The top ten - that is, Mathematics, Biology, Psychology, Chemistry, History, Art & Design, English Literature, Physics, Sociology and Business Studies accounted for 67% of all subjects chosen, and it is good to see that the key financial awareness subjects - Mathematics , Business Studies and Economics - are now accounting for over 20% of the total, with a combined uplift of over 3% since last year.

Click here for the full analysis, which suggests a pragmatic approach to adult life, less tied to the European Union and to the past.

The story told by gender differential, however, is still very stark:

Subjects studied



Biology and Psychology

40,223 (31%)

90,089 (69%)

Mathematics and Physics

86,227 (65%)

45,834 (35%)


There are two leading questions that arise from this contrast:

  1. Does the choice of these academic interests lead to earning power differentials in subsequent adult careers?
  2. Is the choice of these academic interests influenced by nature or nurture – and, if the latter, does the teaching profession itself steer these gender choices?

The first question leads one to ask: ‘why should the choice of different academic interests lead to differences in earning power?’. In a market-based society like ours, earning power is the product of supply and demand: but does that in itself reflect the fact that business and finance drive higher margins, which provide the capacity to pay people more? And is the propensity to cope with more risk part of what permits that greater reward? Why should women have less propensity to cope with risk than men? That’s not evident in other walks of life - for example, family formation, inter-generational issues.

So, if the answers to these questions provide for gender neutrality so far as subject choice is concerned, why is it not more balanced? Do schools need to think seriously about the degree to which they are subconsciously steering girls towards Biology and Psychology, and boys towards Mathematics and Physics?

It’s all very well seeking to end discrimination by establishing board quotas and regulatory controls, but that is dealing with the symptoms, not the cause. This issue needs tackling at its root: the academic potential is clearly there, with 55% of all A-level subjects studied chosen by females. It’s just the balance of subject choice which needs addressing.

Finally, let’s not forget that it’s now just two weeks before the oldest Child Trust Fund recipients can access their account. Here’s a summary of the current state of play - with 60,000 young people turning 18 each month for the next eight years, that’s a potential £75 million per month of starter capital accounts for young adults. How will they choose to deploy that nest egg:

  • Use it to start a habit of saving/investing for adult life?
  • Use it to put towards higher education?
  • Use it to fund driving lessons and build their independence?

The choice is theirs: but it’s incumbent on all adults to help and guide were possible. If you want to be part of that process, please consider volunteering as a Child Trust Fund Ambassador for The Share Foundation. There are lots of resources to help you provide that guidance, whether in financial awareness or just helping young people to find their lost accounts.

As we’ve all heard from across the media, the virus emergency has caused considerable disruption for young people from all walks of life, but especially the most disadvantaged.

Please do what you can to help.

Gavin Oldham OBE

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