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.