What are the best subjects to study? 18.11.16

In recent years, the Government has been promoting STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) extremely heavily and I understand why. The country, and the world in general needs highly qualified scientists to help us maintain and improve our standard of living in a sustainable way.  So should all the boys at Loughborough Grammar School be studying these subjects throughout their education? Why bother with arts, languages and the humanities?

My short answer is that every boy should focus on what matches his enthusiasms and talents. The STEM subjects are certainly highly prized at LGS. A higher percentage of boys study Maths and Science A Levels when compared to most similar schools, and in the last decade, we have invested several million pounds in our science facilities which are now the envy of the region. However, I would want to be very honest with parents whose sons will be making A Level decisions in the near future. Not everyone who studies these subjects emerges with stellar exam grades, because they are arguably the hardest A Levels. (Research from the CEM centre at Durham University supports this.)

Although we have chosen to study the IGCSE qualification in recent years as it prepares our boys better for advanced study, there is still a huge step up in difficulty from GCSE to A Level. In Summer 2016, 51 Year 12 boys achieved the top A grade at Mathematics AS Level, but I regret to say that a number of students achieved an E or a U (fail). This is not unique. My previous school had a similar pattern, and I know from the regular headteachers’ meetings that I attend, that our local competitors have identical experiences. The truth is that not everyone can or should attempt A Level in Mathematics (or the sciences). Parents have often commented to me that “Maths is a good subject to have”. Yes, but not if you achieve a D or E grade.

Choosing A Level subjects is a really important decision in every student’s life. By the time Year 11 arrives, you have had a lot of information about your son’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Please ensure that this remains at the forefront of your mind as you discuss your son’s choices with him. Parents and staff should all seek to achieve a balance between being encouraging and realistic. It is possible that your son has long held an ambition to be a doctor. However, if he has struggled to achieve top grades in science throughout Years 10 and 11, this is a sign that he is probably not destined for this route. Teachers offers a great deal of advice to boys and parents on A Level choices. When we strike a note of caution about a particular subject, we are not trying to be killjoys; we are merely reflecting our experience, knowing how boys tend to progress during the final two years of their education. Ultimately, we want to ensure that your son has the best chance of achieving the sort of grades (A*-C) that will enable him to leave LGS with a place at a good university. I tell my colleagues that we should rather have a difficult conversation with a boy and his parents in Year 11 before A Level subject choices are finalised, than have a conversation two years later in August when he has opened an envelope revealing low grades and when he can do nothing about it.

And the alternatives of arts, languages, humanities are hardly a poor option. At LGS, we do not offer subjects that are poorly-regarded by universities. ‘New’ subjects such as Psychology or Business Studies are interesting and highly-respected. The arts and humanities subjects teach boys how to think, how to be intellectually discriminating and how to construct arguments; all vital commodities in a predominantly service-based economy. Moreover, boys really enjoy their A Level studies in these subjects because they are really well taught by teachers with expert knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and a dedication to ensure that each of their pupils achieves at his level. Although I described the STEM subjects as the most difficult, the arts and humanities are far from easy. However, the conceptual obstacles that blight some boys’ progress in the STEM subjects are not as acute. A student who works hard and follows his teachers’ guidance can achieve the good grade in an arts/humanities subject that opens doors for him. Hard work is sometimes not enough in the STEM subjects to ensure success, and every year we see boys at the end of Year 12 who acknowledge that they chose wrongly, often because they had been persuaded by others’ talk about how important Maths and the sciences are.

I urge parents (and boys) therefore to keep an open mind when deliberating about these important decisions. Every year, LGS boys achieve incredibly high standards in all subjects. Don’t be confused by our published A Level results – it is not true that the subjects with the largest proportion of A*s are necessarily the best taught! Often, these are the subjects which attract the largest number of our highest achievers at GCSE and it’s no surprise that they then go on to achieve the best A Level results. Another way of putting this is that a B grade can represent either success or failure: a B grade to a boy who achieved 9 A*s at GCSE is likely to be a huge disappointment. However, for a boy who has had to work extremely hard to keep up with his peers, a B is a triumph that will get him into a top university. A list of exam results is largely meaningless unless you know the boys who started the courses. I would encourage boys therefore to talk to Sixth Formers who have actually experienced the courses that are under consideration. They can talk of stimulating class discussion, invaluable feedback and progress borne of engagement with their teachers.

The same can be said of GCSE subject choices. The vast majority of LGS boys study 9 or 10 GCSEs, so there is room for variety. Please don’t think that there is such a thing as a ‘less academic’ option that might harm your son’s chance of a top university. Universities look at the grades as a whole: 5 A*s and 4 As describe your son’s achievement. It’s important that he does Maths, English, science and a language, but our curriculum forces boys to choose these in any case. The other 3 or 4 choices can be freely made, reflecting your son’s interests and talents. I’d like to make a particular plea for at least one creative subject to be part of the curriculum. This provides him with variety in his GCSE curriculum, and, no matter how important STEM will be in the 21st Century, creativity is a skill that will be increasingly valued in a world where many of the careers that your sons will be doing do not yet even exist.

I hope that this has been of interest to all parents, but the Year 9 and Year 11 Parents’ Evenings next term will pick up these themes in much greater detail.