22 September 2022
English courses have seen a decline in number with English departments in some universities closing. The liberal arts are under threat; driven by the combined impact of government rhetoric ignited by Michael Gove focused on STEM, costly university fees, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, our higher education is in danger of becoming utilitarian and pragmatic. In the English Department at Burgess Hill Girls, we have been trying to challenge this fad by inviting inspirational speakers to talk about their careers which have been made possible because of studying English.
English was one of the first subjects offered when ancient universities opened and has always been a pivotal and popular degree. In the last decade, there has been a decline in applicants choosing to study English at university from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021. Consequently, the books are closing for English departments at several universities, including Cumbria University and Sheffield Hallam. Other universities including Leicester University and Portsmouth University have cut the size of their English departments. This decline in students reading English at university is mirrored in A Level uptake: in 2012 90,000 students studied English A Levels, compared to only 53,965 in 2022.
English has been a core subject in the school curriculum in the 19th century. The Newbolt report of 1921 recognised that “English is not merely the medium of our thought; it is the very stuff and process of it. It is itself the English mind, the element in which we live and work.” Lauded as a prestigious course, an English Literature A Level is recognised by Russell Group universities as one of the nine facilitating subjects (a subject most commonly required or preferred by universities). Equally, an English degree is a well-respected and highly regarded degree which supports a broad range of careers. Employers recognise that English students think critically, analyse how meanings are created, evaluate multiple perspectives, and learn to write elegantly. These valuable skills are essential to a plethora of careers but most directly in law, journalism, media, film, writing, creative arts, marketing, speech therapies and publishing.
Last term pupils at Burgess Hill Girls heard from a rich range of speakers including a defence lawyer, a journalist, a librettist, and two authors, and we are booking a publisher, a copywriter, and a speech therapist to speak to pupils next term. These seminar speakers described their job, the highs and lows of their careers, and an average day; offered advice about training and career pathways; and, alongside this, they explained how studying English was advantageous to the development of core skills and their career prospects.
Rather than seeing the subject as merely a means to an end along the long road to university, the visitors helped students to see the connections between their efforts and the outcomes become more tangible. Many students have since spoken passionately about their aspirations in law and justice, their renewed enthusiasm for literature and a newfound interest in reading about current affairs. Many were struck by the extent to which success in English would enable them to communicate complex ideas, understand how their chosen disciplines can influence social policy and evaluate information with a critical eye. After the experience, it became clear that the school’s community of writers is growing, and with it the voice of a generation of young women is growing in power and influence. According to Catherine in Year 10, to write is to “have the power over a world of your creation.” In a world in which more voices have a platform than ever before, the ability to manipulate the stories that society tells itself is more important than ever.
Supporting a broad range of careers, an education in English leaves opportunities open. Our young people are likely to change careers many times throughout their lives; life expectancy for today’s children is expected to increase and the days of a job for life is a thing of the past. Sir Ken Robinson, a champion of creative education, reminded educators in his famous TED talk that we are training pupils for an unknown future and a world of work we cannot yet imagine. Our society needs creative individuals who can pioneer this future.
An art-rich education is not just important for careers, it can also deepen our understanding of life, ourselves, and others. Writers process their experience of the world, humanity, spirituality, and society through creating novels, plays and poems. To study literature is to read, as Matthew Arnold said, “the best which has been thought and said.” While this quotation opens a debate as what counts as ‘good’ literature and who decides what is printed, studying English at university, depending on the course and the institution, can provide access to a diversity of voices and experiences. A life enriched with literature will foster personal well-being, ignite creativity, and sharpen intelligence.