Ofqual has announced plans to axe 24 GCSE and A-levels subjects

Ofqual has announced plans to axe GCSEs and A-levels in 24 subjects, including home economics and engineering, because they "overlap" too much with other qualifications.

Heads are already resisting some of the changes, but the exams regulator is warning that it is also “inevitable” that even more subjects will disappear because exam boards will not be prepared to invest to ensure the subjects meet the tougher new requirements revealed today.

Subjects on the at-risk list include ancient history, law, geology and home economics. Ofqual’s proposals are part of a plan to bring all school exams up to the tougher standards that are being introduced in core subjects from next year at the behest of education secretary Michael Gove.

The watchdog is proposing that all unreformed A-levels and GCSEs should be withdrawn from 2017, with the last results coming out in 2018.

The qualifications it definitely wants to discontinue are all “similar or overlapping” with other more established subjects. For example human biology at A and AS-level would go because it is too similar to biology.

Some have very low entries, such as applied art and design – judged to overlap with art and design – which had just 524 awards made in 2012. But others being proposed for the axe are much more popular.

The home economics GCSE, which Ofqual says has too much in common with food technology, was taken by 32,064 pupils in 2012.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) plans to lobby the regulator to retain the qualification and at least one other “overlapping” subject.

Brian Lightman, ASCL's general secretary, said the “plans for the most part appear sensible”, but added: “There are a few areas where we do have concerns about proposals to discontinue popular qualifications, in particular film studies at A-level and home economics at GCSE.”

The remaining subjects will all have to meet tougher requirements from Ofqual if they are to survive. GCSEs will have to provide evidence of “demanding and fulfilling content” and a “strong foundation for further academic and vocational study, and for employment”.

A-levels must offer “robust and internationally comparable” courses that provide a foundation for higher education, allow universities and employers to identify pupils’ academic ability and be suitable for school accountability. Ofqual also wants assessment to be “mainly by exam”.

The changes have been spun by some newspapers in advance as being about removing so-called “soft subjects” such as media studies.

But the actual consultation suggests that market forces and the level of demand from schools may play a bigger part in deciding which subjects survive.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, said that the new higher level of demand would lead to a small drop in the number of subjects available. "Subjects that attract few students may disappear, with exam boards unlikely to invest in reforming them to the standard we require,” she added.

Exam board finances are already being hit by the reduction in resits, multiple entries and the move away from modular qualifications demanded by Mr Gove.

Ofqual’s consultation says: “They [the boards] are each likely to consider carefully which subjects to carry on and to only propose subjects where there is new demand, or where the existing and/or potential future market is large enough."

Some subjects portrayed in the media as being at risk are relatively popular. GCSE media studies was taken by 55,851 candidates in 2012. Others, such as GCSE ancient history, taken by just 346 in the same year, appear more vulnerable.

Mr Lightman said: “We need finally to let go of this toxic discourse about ‘soft‘ and ‘rigorous’ subjects. In a global economy we need young people who have all kinds of skills in a range of disciplines. Core academic subjects are important but they are not enough.”  

‘Overlapping’ subjects facing Ofqual’s axe:

GCSEs: digital communication; expressive arts; electronics; catering; home economics; manufacturing; engineering; performing arts; humanities; applied science; additional applied science; environmental science; environmental and land-based science; human health and physiology

A-levels: science in society*; applied science*; environmental studies*; human biology*; applied art & design*; humanities*; economics and business*; applied business*; home economics (food, nutrition and health)*; engineering*; performing arts*; film studies; performance studies*; quantitative methods*; use of mathematics*

*also AS-level