HSC students have steadily opted out of taking extension English courses over the last decade, while one of the state's most popular subjects from 10 years ago has lost more than 5000 enrolments.
A 10-year analysis of HSC enrolment data reveals Ancient History has suffered the greatest decline in student numbers since 2010, while Biology, PDHPE and Business Studies enrolments have soared.
English Extension 1 and 2 have both lost more than one-third of student numbers they had in 2010.
Educators say it's difficult to pinpoint causes for these trends, but that the raised school leaving age, university prerequisites and the job market have shaped students' choices.
Teachers from the NSW English Teachers' Association said both extension English subjects usually scaled well, but that the unpredictability around marking Extension 2 major works might have deterred students from the subject over time.
They also said the Extension 1 syllabus had become more difficult when it was updated in 2019, and that many students felt it demanded more work than warranted by a 100-hour subject.
One teacher said their school now had just 27 English Extension 1 students, where they used to have more than 100 candidates.
"In some schools students are making the decision that they are going to be doing Extension 2 Maths, and don't choose Extension English so they can reduce their load," another teacher said.
"This is also partly because some students aren't seeing the value of the subject in university preparedness or career aspirations."
Just 1385 students took the most advanced English course this year, and 3592 have studied Extension 1.
By contrast the Mathematics Extension 2 exam will be sat by 3418 students this month – the largest cohort since 2012 – while more than 9000 students took Mathematics Extension 1. Those courses have only fluctuated by about 3 per cent over the decade.
Community and Family Studies has bolted up the ranks of popular subjects, up 53 per cent on its 2010 enrolments with 3114 more students this year. Earth and Environmental Science and Construction enrolments have also grown by more than 40 per cent, although their candidature remains lower overall.
Acting director of educational standards at the NSW Department of Education, Kay Smith, said students were responding to "messages about where future jobs are, because it's a more complicated world".
She said the subjects attracting the most new students often involved real-world applications of theory and invited students to draw on their own experiences.
"I think it’s about them being able to make a connection between what they’re studying, and what they might be able to do with it afterwards," she said.
Modern History was the ninth-most-studied course this year, in a list including compulsory English and maths.
But Ancient History's 40 per cent drop in student numbers has been rivalled by a decline in the smaller Information Processes Technology and Textiles and Design units.
The NSW History Teachers' Association said there was "a complex interplay" between student choice and the introduction of new syllabuses to the curriculum, making it difficult to account for fluctuations over time.
"During the past 20 years the number of students studying Modern History has increased steadily. Ancient History numbers increased significantly [after 2000] and, more recently, have settled back to a level higher than at the start of this period," a statement from the association said.
The association said history subjects were academically rigorous and suited to developing students' literacy and critical thinking skills.
It has also repeatedly called for the NSW Education Standards Authority to reintroduce more general history courses, which it offered about 20 years ago, to help cater for the greater range of students completing the HSC each year.
NESA's executive director of curriculum and assessment standards, Sofia Kesidou, said students and parent feedback showed they wanted greater connections to the "real world" in senior schooling.
"Students want to understand the practical application of what they are learning, and how that connects to the post-school world of future work and study," she said.
More than 75,000 students will sit the HSC. Written exams begin on October 20.
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