Secondary education: time to leave ‘soft subjects’ behind?

The Russell Group, which represents 20 universities that consider themselves to be the leading higher education institutions in the UK, has published a guide (Informed Choices) for secondary students advising them what subjects to select for A-levels so as to maximise their chances to secure the degree programme of their choice when they go on to higher education.

The key advice given to students is simple enough: go for so-called ‘facilitating’ subjects, these being Mathematics, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages. These are the subjects, the guide says, that give students the best options later and provide them with the necessary grounding for degree programmes. The guide also advises students to avoid ‘soft’ subjects – those with a ‘vocational or practical bias’ such as Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies.

Of course this guide is not just a set of suggestions for secondary students, it is also part of an ongoing discussion – maybe even a battle – about the nature and purpose of education at different levels. The ‘facilitating’ subjects are those that will ground students in the traditional disciplines’, while the ‘soft’ subjects are examples of pre-tertiary interdisciplinarity.

I am not sure whether the Russell Group guide is right or wrong. It is probably right if you read it as a manual for preparation for entry to a traditional university. It is probably also right in the sense that secondary education needs to lay the groundwork for advanced work in degree programmes, bearing in mind that far too often students enter higher education lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. It is also probably right in that it would move us away from excessive specialisation at too early an age. But in other ways it seems to represent a view that Victorian pedagogy found the perfect pitch. I think we must be more imaginative in how we devise education, and need to find ways of combining intellectual rigour with a slightly less rigid view of traditional disciplines, bearing in mind that some of the disciplinary boundaries were products of the state of knowledge of their day.

Like universities, schools cannot just stop the further development of pedagogical insights. We must keep moving.

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17 Comments on “Secondary education: time to leave ‘soft subjects’ behind?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Going by the inclusion of QUB, all the Irish Universities would sit very nicely ‘ta ever so’ within the Russell group.

    • Aidan Says:

      “Going by the inclusion of QUB, all the Irish Universities would sit very nicely ‘ta ever so’ within the Russell group.”

      Have to say I’m not sure what this means…

  2. jfryar Says:

    This Russel Group guide looks quite similar to Michael Gove’s ‘English Baccalaureate’ … and I have to admit I absolutely agree with the concept because, although it is unfashionable to say so in our era of ‘multiple intelligences’, some subjects are just more important than others.

    All of the subjects mentioned (maths, english, languages, sciences, history, geography) are not simply ‘traditional subjects’ – they’re subjects that allow people to contribute and function in a modern society. So I think our schools and education system should be biased in favour of those, irrespective of the third-level question.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    “I am not sure whether the Russell Group guide is right or wrong.”
    Well, you seem to lean towards the ‘probably right’ (3 to 1 is the football score in favour of the guide) if one follows your reasoning. I think that at the time when secondary education is undergoing such telluric changes, one needs to take a strong position: THIS IS VICTORIAN PEDAGOGY!
    Apologies for the emphasis there but as someone who teaches Media Studies in an Art & Design context and does not compromise on intellectual rigour I found what is proposed, with its implied distinction of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ (i.e. the intellectual and the vocational) myopic, to say the least, it simply makes no sense at all for young learners to separate critiquing and creating because the two are mutually beneficial. It is exactly to defend a ‘soft subject’ like Media education from such absurd propositions that the project entitled ‘A Manifesto for Media Education’ ( has been put forward, it’s an interesting read for anyone who cares about the future of secondary education

    • Actually no, I think the Russell Group are wrong. Or rather, they are right in predicting how their member institutions will react to A-level subject choices, but wrong in that their view of education does not properly take into account how knowledge and learning have developed.

      For all that, discouraging media studies in secondary education does not suggest it is wrong at university.

      • anna notaro Says:

        “For all that, discouraging media studies in secondary education does not suggest it is wrong at university.” Have to disagree with this, it does seem to suggest that, besides one cannot disconnect the two levels of education so easily. I have lost count of the times in which Media Studies (at University level) have been labelled as ‘mickey mouse’ subjects, just a variation on being called ‘soft’

  4. Al Says:

    I think the elephant in the room is that when we decide what is/ will be done for second level in Ireland, we will apply it to all learners and all schools, regardless of the question of suitability.
    All in the name of equality and “my Johnny is good enough”!

    How many people are wasting their potential in the current system: those whose talents aren’t challenged and see the points game for what it is and play it, and, those who at this stage in their lives find themselves out of sync with the demand of the leaving and therefore under-perform.

  5. Jilly Says:

    In an Irish context, it seems to me that the crucial problem facing second-level education isn’t what subjects are taught, but *how* they’re taught. The Leaving Cert in particular is focused on a strange combination of uber-Victorian learning practices (cramming, rote-learning and trying to predict the exam paper) and intellectually vapid approaches (asking students to write about how a poem makes them feel, and to give unsubstantiated personal opinions about issues).

    Whatever the subject is, it should be taught with an emphasis on critical thinking, clear written and oral skills to express that thinking, and a firm grasp of the use of evidence to back up arguments.

    And while I’m at it, I’ll lob a grenade at one of the sacred cows of the Irish school system. Transition Year is a dangerous waste of time, which could be much better spent in learning some of the intellectual skills the overwhelming majority of students still haven’t acquired when they arrive in university. I do appreciate that I’m starting to sound like Matthew Arnold here; but I’m being pushed to it by teaching undergraduates who are not fit for college after 15 years of full-time education, and by having to provide what are in effect remedial classes to 1st years before we can move on to what they’re supposed to be doing in college.

    • Al Says:

      Let me add my catapult to your grenade.
      We seem to have created a system of morality around work and working where it should be seen as the capstone to education.
      Work has become so legislated that the experience is hard to get for young people, etc.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Could not agree more with you Jilly on the not *what* subjects are taught, but *how* they’re taught, I also share the frustration re undergraduates not fit for college, it’s so bad that when I leave the classroom, I wish I was home already to switch on my Wii and throw a few ‘virtual’ punches to feel better 🙂

  6. Dan Says:

    Russell Group statement seems smug and self-serving to me – I have to say that never having paid the slightest attention to Media Studies before now, anna’s post makes me think; “umm…that sounds like a subject that should be taught to citizens, if we are to live in a healthy society”…?

  7. cormac Says:

    Interesting that business studies gets the cold shoulder too…every 3rd level college has a business faculty and presumably business lecturers would argue that business studies in school is a useful grounding

    • Fred Says:

      agree. I thought that RG doesn’t care for media studies since most (if not all) of its members do not provide media studies but then, I saw that business studies were also excluded from their list and most of them have good business schools which by the way are something like cash-cows.
      But since Browne revie Russell Group is behaving like an elite which tries to distinguish it self from the others. Not fair really.

  8. Rab Says:

    I listen to a paper given at conference recently on the question of computer games, their representation of the past and national identity. The speaker was from Oxford. It was clearly a Media Studies paper cunningly disguised as History. (The speaker was working in a History department.) This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed the posh universities working in ‘soft’ areas. This from the BBC last year:

    “Computer games and comics are to be analysed alongside the time-honoured classics of children’s literature at a new Cambridge University centre.

    The ideas children pick up from books as well as other sources will be studied at the university’s new centre for the study of children’s literature.

    Academics argue that books, films and other media, reach children in a way that their teachers and parents cannot.

    The centre will be part of the University’s Faculty of Education.”

    Sounds like Media Studies to me, rather coyly dressed up as Education.

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