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The Tyranny of Choice

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As January draws to a close each year, there is the unmistakable sense in schools across the country that we are moving to the ‘business’ part of the academic year. On Wednesday evening, Year 13 boys and their families attended their very last Parents’ Evening at the Grammar School, analysing Mock examination results and discussing plans about how to improve performance over the next four months. This will be repeated in a week’s time by Year 11s, who also face the challenge of selecting their A Level subjects. Meanwhile, the ‘Life After LGS’ evening saw Year 12 students take the first steps in researching university options. Finally, Year 9s will soon be committing pen to paper confirming their GCSE subject choices. I am fully aware that many boys and their parents are anxious about the process of whittling down their subjects to  nine at GCSE, three at A Level or even one for a UCAS application. Although we understand that increasing specialism is, in some respects, a fundamental principle of education, the conflicting idea of ‘keeping our options open’ is quite deeply ingrained in our psyche. What should be at the forefront of our minds as we choose a curriculum for the next stage in our intellectual journey?

I have told dozens of visitors that the Grammar School sees secondary education as a pyramid. It is vital to provide all boys with a broad base in the early years, and Year 7s live this out, not just through the sheer number of subjects that we expose them to, but also through the clubs and activities that they attend in droves. It is a natural part of growing up that you begin to clarify your likes and dislikes, and from that point onwards, boys increasingly have to make decisions about how they will spend their time, eventually ending up in Sixth Form at the apex of the pyramid with just three A Level subjects and perhaps a couple of co-curricular activities.

I am sure that some boys in both Years 9 and 11 are agonising about the subject choice decisions that will have to be made in the coming weeks. When I am asked for advice, I start by asking a boy what he enjoys studying, as experience tells me that hard work is most likely to ensue when he is enthused. However, I tend to add that there is a sweet spot where enjoyment and aptitude meet: prior achievement in a subject is unsurprisingly a good predictor of future success. It is difficult to make a mistake with one’s GCSE choices, as our core curriculum is sufficiently broad to leave options open for the future. The only considerations are for boys who think they may be headed towards Medicine or Architecture. Prospective Medics need both Biology and Chemistry GCSEs at the very least, and budding architects should choose Physics and either Art or DT, in order to develop their draftsmanship.

Some boys and their families have a more utilitarian approach, focusing on future employability and even potential earnings. A few months ago, I read about research carried out by the Department for Education comparing earnings aged 24-25 (six years after leaving school) by A Level subject studied. STEM subjects were at the top, with those having studied Further Maths as the highest earners. Ex-students of Physics, Computing and Economics were not far behind. In contrast, students of Philosophy propped up the table, earning on average more than 25% less than their mathematically-inclined peers. What was surprising to me, however, was that a number of vocational A Levels (often considered ‘easier’ options and not featuring in the LGS curriculum) fared well by this measure. Students of A Level Travel and Tourism, for example, earned salaries only marginally lower than those who had focused on the STEM subjects. The explanation proffered for this, albeit seemingly with little hard evidence, was that those choosing vocational qualifications were more career-minded and more likely to identify the best professional opportunities.

I think that this is a red herring. Nobody should be persuaded by the earning potential associated with studying STEM A-levels if they do not actually enjoy the subjects or if they have little aptitude for them. “Maths is a good subject to have”, I have heard on many occasions. “But only if you get a good grade”, I might respond. Employers need students with STEM skills, but I would never suggest that a boy takes a subject that he does not enjoy merely because of the tenuous promise of future income. Jobs in many sectors require now a breadth of skills. I have written before about how much I value the STEM competitions that boys participate in at LGS, because talented scientists get to learn presentation and marketing skills. Personally, as a Modern Languages graduate, I cannot believe how important the Statistics part of my Maths A Level has been towards my work over the last 15 years analysing students’ academic performance. Every subject has its value: if boys choose subjects that they enjoy, they will find themselves led towards a degree and ultimately a career that is stimulating and fulfilling.


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