Academic and non-academic subjects

November 18, 2017

One of the worst things that happened in education in the 2000s was a seeming reduction in the number of academic subjects. MFL ceased to be compulsory, and some perverse changes in the league tables gave schools an incentive to concentrate on vocational qualifications. In the last few years, particularly with the introduction of the Ebacc and other changes in league table measures, efforts have been made to reverse this. During some of the debates it became clear how divisive it can be to refer to some subjects as “academic” and yet this is something we do quite easily, often without thinking what we mean.

If I had to put into words what I mean when I describe a subject as “academic”, I’d say an academic subject was one where mastery of it was best characterised by further study. The people who are best at history, are historians and they study history; the people who are best at maths are mathematicians, and they study maths, and so on. This immediately creates a distinction between those subjects and some others, where mastery is shown in carrying out a particular activity or skill. We consider the people who are best at football to be footballers. We expect the people who are best at acting to be actors. We consider the people who are best at plumbing to be plumbers. We don’t expect to find these people, who are the best at their subject, to be employed at universities doing research into those subjects. That doesn’t mean you can’t study these things at a university, but the academic study of the subject would be seen as distinct from being the best at the subject, in a way that wouldn’t happen with history or maths.

Once you make this distinction, then you find a few difficult cases. Are the people with the greatest mastery in the field of music those who play music or those who study it? Similarly, who has the greatest mastery of a language? People who speak it, people who write it or people who study it? This leaves some doubt both about how academic MFL is, although probably not classical languages, and also some parts of what is studied in English lessons. In these cases it could be argued either way about whether the subject is academic, or whether parts of it are and parts of it aren’t. Perhaps the best option in those cases is to consider them as subjects that could be taught more or less academically while still being equally focused on some form of mastery of that subject. Whereas in other subjects, we could be more or less academic but there is no dispute as to whether mastery is shown by further study or not. Artists are the best at art; carpenters are the best at woodwork, and nobody would expect a university to be the first place to find them and this contrasts clearly with where we’d find the people who are best at biology and ancient Greek.

Even if you can understand the logic of the distinction I have made, some people are likely to still be furious. The problem is that the place of a subject within schools is often based on how academic it seems. Therefore, even if it seems obvious that football and drama are not the same sort of thing as Latin and physics people will not want to make that distinction. And that’s actually part of the problem here, people will want to make them as much like an academic discipline as possible. They will want budding footballers and actors to have written essays and compiled coursework that has been given a grade, because that’s what academic subjects look like; that’s the route to credibility and legitimacy in those subjects.

It’s also a mistake.

We need to create a culture in schools where the best drama teaching isn’t that which produces the best grades at GCSE or (God forbid) performing arts BTECs, but the one that results in the best actors. A great school production should be seen as a sign of great drama teaching. The school with the best PE teaching is probably not the one where the PE qualifications make the biggest contribution to the league tables, it’s going to be one where their sports teams win and their students have the best chance of becoming professionals in the sports they learnt at school. We need to let arts, sports and crafts be valued in schools as arts, sports and crafts not as pseudo-academic subjects. Being good at football, art or woodwork should not be about getting qualifications, they should be about playing a game, painting or producing a product. Conversely, we should try to stop people making serious academic disciplines into games or entertainment; stop trying to put creativity into maths while taking it out of pottery.

The distinction between academic subjects and non-academic subjects is not a distinction between what is important and what isn’t; it’s a distinction between the ways in which they are important. The arts in particular, are in many ways so much more important than the sciences, that it seems insane to treat them as sciences. I’d love it if the incentives were there so that schools could simultaneously reduce the number of qualifications taken in non-academic subjects, but increase the resources put into those subjects, because the cultural life of a school is as important as exam results. We need to make a distinction between academic subjects and non-academic subjects for the sake of both types of subject.



  1. Having spent the better part of my working life on the tools, I can assure you that the ‘parity of esteem’ issue is one that only concerns hand-wringing liberal educators. It’s a very rare to work from a set of architect’s drawings that accurately represent the real world, and as every apprentice soon discovers, learning how to translate these fantasies into something do-able is an essential part of the craft. One of my favourites was a loft conversion where the owners of the house employed an architect friend to knock up the drawings; after pointing out that the stairs had just about enough headroom for a toddler, they had no choice but to ask me to go ahead and work it out myself.

    Nor is the debate helped by those who insist that the purpose of education is to service the economy and prepare children for the world of work. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy, very little of what is taught in schools has much relevance in the workplace. A Science HoD recently assured me that he has encountered teachers with degrees in their subject who can’t even teach it to the new GCSEs, given the renewed emphasis on knowledge.

    On the whole, I agree with your comments. Sadly, most SLTs are focussed on the next Ofsted inspection to the exclusion worrying overmuch about what their pupils actually learn. We have far too many ‘architects’ telling teachers what to do, but it is seldom possible for teachers to merely ignore them and get on with the job.

  2. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Academic and non-academic subjects

  3. An interesting piece . Are you restricting your definitions of academic /non academic to subjects studied at secondary school? If not , could you say something about school teaching, as a subject of study itself (ie. ITT , Education qualifications etc) ?
    Teaching as academic or non academic? Perhaps there is a difficulty with the distinction when thinking about professional qualifications, Although, if I was sick I would expect to get the best medical treatment from a physician or surgeon employed at a university teaching hospital. Do you think we ever could be in an equivalent situation with teaching?

  4. You convinced me of the importance of knowledge and an academically rigorous curriculum a long time ago. While I accept many of the arguments you put forward in this piece, I am concerned about some of the points you make. You suggest PE results probably will not make the biggest contribution to the league tables. I hope that’s not the test of an academic subject. The reason ‘vocational equivalents’ were introduced was to contribute (inappropriately) to the league tables! I hope the reason for studying any subject goes well beyond league tables. However, if the test of the success of PE is to produce a winning football team, what happens to the child who derives great joy from the subject but will never make the team? And the reason for studying drama is to put on a wonderful school production? How about being able to enjoy and make sense of theatre in adulthood?

    I am also concerned about some subjects having a monopoly of being ‘academic’. You do realise you can study mechanical engineering at Cambridge? There are different levels of study within the discipline of engineering: some academic; some more vocational. The study stress distribution within a structure is highly academic. To weld that structure together is highly vocational. However, not all ‘non-academic’ subjects are simply about skills. To cut a thread on a centre lathe in metalwork not only requires skill, but also knowledge — lots of it. An understanding of pitch, angle, gearing calculations to control chuck and feed speeds, material characteristics (cutting a thread on brass is different from steel). Where does one learn the knowledge and facts associated with this? Are you conflating knowledge and subjects? You can learning new knowledge of an academic nature which doesn’t always fit into the tidy understanding of traditional subject disciplines. That said, I am highly supportive of subject teaching in schools and see great difficulties with the concept of interdisciplinary learning.

    I think there are ways to study a wide range of subjects academically. Not all ‘practical’ subjects have to be ‘training for work’. Some subjects, e.g. sculpture, have an academic intrinsic value and people who study them are better educated once they have gained knowledge in that field.

    The English have a propensity to always find ways to sub-divide society, splitting the wheat from the chaff. So, we create grammar schools to keep all the academic children together and give them a rigorous education. However, once these academic children get on the same train to go to Cambridge, we divide those studying engineering from those studying Classics. Where does all the sub-dividing lead us? Eventually, we will identify a tiny elite group whose membership is so select that we can then look at their radiant lines with pride of the King of Sparta.

    I think you make an outstanding contribution to the debate in education and you are part of the move back towards a sensible approach to teaching which has been missing for many years. However, I would urge caution in writing off academic study which you yourself have not found to be stimulating.

  5. MFL is? Whatever it is, we don’t call it that in AUSTRALIA. Always good practice to use full term first time! Cheers.

    • Had the same question re: MFL (Canadian, eh?)
      Mandatory Foreign Language?

    • Modern Foreign Languages. So French and German, but not Latin or (classical) Greek.

  6. An excellent, thought-provoking piece – until I got to the remark “The arts in particular, are in many ways so much more important than the sciences”. I’m immediately timewarped back to the 60s, CP Snow and the Two Cultures Debate. And in a way negating your core point about mis-applying value systems to academic, and non-academic… it’s not about better/worse, but different though needing parity of esteem?

    I would also point out that once one stops thinking about school curricula, the arguments get even more shaky. Where do you expect to find the best geologists, psychologists, computer scientists and a host of other subject specialists – in universities, or in the field practicing their subject. Or even in the less common school subjects such as Politics, Philosophy, Economics? Does that mean the only ‘academic’ subjects are the ones where you are only employable in the confines of a university? Of course not.

    • Tony’s final comment reminds me of something I wrote when M Gove was S of S. I said “Our current [exam] system was devised, remember, to provide a route to university and to relieve universities of the burden of establishing (or continuing) their own admissions grading systems. It was originally run by universities individually or collectively (Cambridge still owns their exam board) and was designed to process a relatively small number of candidates from independent and grammar schools.” http://www.curee.co.uk/trouble-levels.

      So your point about the relationship between school academic subjects and university study is a entirely a propos. Now, of course, the alignment between the two systems is weak and the range of subjects offered in universities overlaps the school curriculum less than ever. That point of overlap has to be accessible cheaply and ‘reliably’ (= by writing about it not by demonstrating it).

      This is regrettable but not reprehensible. However, it aligns with a bigger problem – the elevation in our system of abstract knowledge as intrinsically more valuable than practical knowledge. But that a whole other topic on its own…

  7. […] Teaching in British schools « Academic and non-academic subjects […]

  8. I am a educator and have been teaching many years. Drama translates from Ancient Greek into ‘to find a meaning’. The best art, music and drama are about exploration of the human condition; they challenge people to think about ethics and values. They move society on and give people a jolt. The human race needs maths and art in equal measures. What was it Churchill said about the art budget?

    • I think he said “why do people on the internet keep attributing things I never said to me?”

      • Churchill, 1938: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

        • Which is not a statement about the arts budget, just the importance of the arts.

          • “To sustain” indicates funding them, does it not?

            • So? Having vague implications for funding does not make it a statement about the budget.

  9. The word “academic” was originally synonymous with creative thought and the pursuit of philosophical truth. The distinction, which you seem wedded to, between arts and sciences is relatively recent and it is unhelpful. For a long time, the best education included the “art” of mathematics, astronomy, rhetoric (presumably judged as all other subjects through oral exam!) and archery. That would have been practical archery, I’d be prepared to bet my house. Having studied drama as 40% of an English and Drama degree, we were expected to approach it with an academic head on, but often through practical work. How else does a director direct a performance or a film? How else does a screenwriter write? It would be a failing art form if all we had ever produced in this country was Tom Hiddlestone. He has charm but he merely acts – so far anyhow. I could go on about how much role play, hot seating and creative presentation I’ve seen in recent years in the hallowed classrooms of science and history and MFL, led by those subject teachers, and how much it seemed to help with exam learning as much as with true grasp of subject. You studied maths – a logical subject – but your theory does not reach a logical conclusion. Your theory is flawed. You need better proof.

    • To be honest, not sure what part of this is addressing any point I have actually made.

  10. I refer to O Mann comment above re Drama as part of a social / citizenship curriculum. Studying drama as part of a GCSE in secondary schools is not an actors training, the course includes history of theatre and elements, writing and devising, that is why the course has a written element not to give it more kudos but that’s what drama is. There is some performing assessed too. Acting and learning purely to be an actor happens at drama school.

  11. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  12. […] my last blog, I discussed the academic/non-academic subject divide in education. In two recent blogs, Old Andrew defines an academic subject […]

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