A recent article in Sociology reports on the findings of the largest survey ever undertaken of UK Sociology teachers. The results can be summarised by a striking paradox: sociology in schools is low status, given few resources, often taught by non-specialists and perceived as a soft option YET its teachers are highly committed and enthusiastic, the subject is experienced by students as challenging and useful, and it continues to attract good numbers. Indeed despite regular fears that the end is nigh for Sociology as a school subject, it has grown rapidly in the UK, since its relatively recent introduction, to become the 8th most popular subject, and appears to have survived the latest scare about its fate as changes in A Level assessment led most students to drop from four subjects to three. Indeed, the most recent figures suggest that numbers have shown a slight increase over the past two years. It seems then that Sociology is popular despite the challenges it faces. Whilst there is little that can be done about some of these challenges – in particular under-funding of the state education sector, where Sociology is most likely to be taught – it is important to ask what the BSA as a professional Association can do to tackle some of the others. And to imagine how Sociology could flourish in schools without the constraints that currently hold it back.
This matters in itself, if we believe in the value and power of the sociological imagination and the critical analysis of social life that comes from this. And it also matters for the survival of Sociology as a University discipline, if we want to secure and grow student numbers at University level. Whilst it is notable that University applications for Sociology have never fallen as disastrously as has been predicted from time to time – in particular when student fees were introduced and then tripled in 2012. Indeed, I have come to see those predictions made from outside our discipline more as a revelation of the biases and ignorance of those who make them as anything else … ‘who would want to pay to study Sociology?’ Well maybe not someone who has worked as an Engineer for 30 years, but that hardly represents the motivations of all young people applying to University, as we have seen!
These are strong foundations, but hardly cause for complacency. So what could we tackle as an Association that represents Sociology, and the professional interests of ALL sociologists?
In February this year, Sarah Cant, Mike Savage and I met with a group of A Level Sociology and subject leads from the Exam Boards to discuss these issues. It was our pleasure and privilege to spend the day with the most enthusiastic, dedicated and positive advocates of Sociology we could have hoped to meet. From the meeting we identified a number of actions in response to specific problems:
- Sociology is not identified by the Russell Group as a facilitating subject for University or even as one that …. This is the easy one! The BSA had planned to lobby for a change, but the change has already been made (clearly the threat of BSA action was enough!)
- Sociology is not seen as a good career choice. We need case studies and materials that demonstrate the employability of Sociology graduates. Again, there is a paradox. Despite the assertion that Sociology does nothing for students’ career prospects – trotted out with irritating regularity around the A Level results day – we know that sociologists enter a wide range of graduate level occupations and that their salaries rise steadily. Whilst earnings, for most, are unlikely to compete with those of accountants or doctors, they fare reasonably with other disciplines over the medium term. We also know that a Sociology degree equips graduates with the skills to work in a variety of exciting and challenging settings and make a difference in their chosen career path. The BSA is already working in revamping employability materials that could be used by A Level teachers to promote their subject.
- The curriculum is seen by some as dated, lacking in relevance, too dominated by ‘dead white men’. A twin-pronged approach would help here (i) to work with Exam Boards when it comes to re-validation (not likely for several years); and (ii) providing easy to use summaries of new research that can be used for teaching the core curriculum (gender, race and ethnicity, crime and deviance, etc.). The BSA is organizing a one day conference for A Level teachers (see below).
- Professional identity for A’Level teachers is weak. It is in all our interests to support networks across Schools and HE, and engage in these networks, for the wider benefit of our discipline. For many years the BSA ran a teachers’ conference and published Sociology Teacher joined later by Discover Sociology as an online resource for Sociology teaching. The BSA is rethinking these, as teacher members of the Association fall, and the resources are used sporadically.
In November 2019, the BSA will hold a one day conference for A Level Sociology teachers, to build networks, share up to date and relevant materials and learn more about what more we can do into the future. In this we are building on and learning from teachers conferences that were run for many years, and Lynn Jamieson’s feminism conferences with A Level students . We hope that this will be the beginning of a renewed and close relationship with A Level teachers and that we will learn more about how we can work together in the future.