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Australia HSC students turn away from harder English subjects in record numbers

October 13, 2022

Original Article:

HSC students are increasingly shying away from extension English courses with thousands fewer selecting the subjects compared with more than a decade ago.

The latest enrolment data from the NSW Education Standards Authority reveals plummeting Extension 1 and 2 English enrolments over the past 15 years, with the number of pupils taking the courses dropping by 40 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively.

Teachers warn students are reluctant to embark on harder English courses due to unpredictability around marking, especially for major works that can include a film script, poetry or short fiction or non-fiction essays.

“Marking for Extension 2 can be variable because of the range of options students have for their major work, from a television script to up to 6000-word non-fiction pieces. The variability in forms and media can make it difficult to rank disparate scripts,” said executive officer at the English Teachers Association Eva Gold.

“It’s a great shame because those students who do extension English report these courses as some of the most interesting subjects they do at school,” Gold said.

Data shows there are 2327 fewer students studying English Extension 1 this year compared with 2008, with a sharper drop off in enrolments in 2019 when the syllabus changed. Boys continue to lag girls in taking harder English subjects, with boys accounting for 35 per cent of Extension 1 students in 2008 compared with just 28 per cent in 2022.

Head of humanities at Northholm Grammar Rebecca Birch said after the Extension 1 syllabus was updated it became “more poorly defined and therefore harder to teach, harder to learn”.

“Many of the kids choosing harder English love literature, but frequently high performing students will gravitate towards STEM and subjects they perceive will scale better. Students have become fearful of English. Once there is a drop-off in numbers it can be difficult for schools to build their numbers back up,” Birch said.

Principal of Loreto Normanhurst Marina Ugonotti said the private girls school had bucked the trend with a steady increase in extension English enrolments in the past three years. The school has six Extension 2 candidates this year - the highest on record - and in 2023 the school will have two Extension 1 classes.

“From early high school years teachers encourage conceptual discussions and emphasise the immense value of classic literature. We also encourage small groups of senior students to mentor those in years 9 and 10 and to do sessions with teacher librarians and encourage an informal dialogue about taking on extension courses.”

“We don’t want students to pursue subjects where they will flounder, but there is a culture of striving for something higher, a focus on public speaking from year 5 and encouraging students to be comfortable in grappling with something more difficult.”

University of Sydney early modern English literature Professor Liam Semler said the long-term downward trend could in part be due to a “job readiness” discussion working its way down to the teenage years.

“In all those sorts of conversations, humanities doesn’t fare as well in the narrative of targeting a course to a specific job outcome,” he said.

Semler said students who chose to take higher level English subjects in HSC were more likely to arrive at university with a humanities mindset.

“It makes students more thoughtful and reflective when they’re presented with the world around them and more accepting of the possibility of debate and discussion,” he said.

HSC exams begin on Wednesday with English Paper 1. About 75,000 students over the next 18 days will sit a total of about 400,000 exams. Exams will finish on November 4, with students set to receive their results and ATARs in on December 15.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said enrolment trends change over time for a variety of reasons. “We have been working with universities to try and increase the number of courses with higher level prerequisites to incentivise students to choose harder courses.

“This has been a particular focus in maths but will be looking at how to also increase participation in higher level English through our senior secondary reform.”


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