Giving children choices

Now either I write in a very incoherent and confusing fashion or some of the people reading this blog are deliberately obtuse. We must hope that it is not a combination of both these things, otherwise I might as well give up and stop writing these pieces altogether! I have for the last couple of days been trying to make what seems to me a very simple point; that the more formal qualifications a teenager possesses, the better, generally speaking. This is because having things like high grade GCSEs and/or A levels mean that good jobs, vocational courses and higher education are all likely to be easier for the young person to obtain.

Unfortunately, some people here have interpreted this to mean that I do not value vocational courses; that I think that every young person should go to university; that I believe everybody should follow my own methods of education and that I am an 'education snob'. This last is utterly bizarre. Simone's sister went to live at a riding school after taking her GCSEs. She was never academic and has worked happily with horses for the last five years. I don't recall that this choice was ever seen as being in any way inferior in our house to Simone's wish to attend university.

Under the guise of giving children choices, some home educating parents do not enter their children for examinations routinely; doing so only if the child specifically asks for this. This can of course result in a teenager without any GCSEs or A levels. Nobody can possibly have any idea of what a sixteen or seventeen year-old will want to do. Often, a fifteen year-old's ambition is very different from that of the same child at twelve. Similarly, the plan might change by the time the young person is seventeen. The aim of a responsible parent is to ensure always that the young person has as many options available to her as is possible. So that if the child reaches sixteen and wishes to be a carpenter, she may do so. If she wishes instead to go to college to study A levels, she should also be able to do that. On the other hand if she wishes to train to be a plumber, that too must be possible. If a child has five GCSEs at grades A*-C, then all these choices will be possible. If a child has no GCSEs, then one of these choices, that of going to college to study A levels, is likely to be denied to her. This is what I mean by a child being restricted in her choices by the parents' decisions. The child might reach the age of sixteen, wish to pursue a certain course and not be able to do so. So in some cases, having the five GCSEs at A*-C will make a certain choice possible. I cannot think of any circumstances where having five GCSEs at grades A*-C would prevent any choice. They certainly won't stop anybody training to be a plumber or being apprenticed to a carpenter. This being the case, it is better for a sixteen year-old to have five GCSEs at A*-C than not to have them.

When we look at the situation when a child reaches seventeen and may want to go to university, then it is again a good thing if the child can choose between as many universities as possible. The more A* GCSEs that a teenager has, the wider the choice of university which is likely to be available. In other words, having six or seven GCSEs at A* will mean that a teenager might be able to apply to Cambridge or Royal Holloway. If a teenager had only grades Bs and Cs, then her choice might be restricted to only one of those two choices. I cannot see that this would be a better thing. My daughter got four As at AS level. This means that her choice of universities is wider than that of her friend who only managed Cs. The A's therefore give the child more choice.

When parents decide that they will not get their child to study for and take GCSEs, then the parents are making decisions about their children's future. The decision made is that the child will have fewer choices at the age of sixteen than is the case with a child who did study for and take a bunch of GCSEs. I cannot offhand think of any choice which will be restricted by the possession of GCSEs, but I can think of choices which will be denied by their lack. This means that parents who do not get their children to take GCSEs are, in effect, restricting their child's future choices. I do not see this as a good or desirable thing.

Of course, there is no reason at all why a parent should not restrict a child's choices in this way if that is what they think is for the best. It is surely sensible though to acknowledge that this is what is being done. It is perfectly true that some young people are not suited to higher education and have no wish to go to university. This should be the child's own decision though, not one made on their behalf by their parents at a very young age. By not making provision for GCSEs, or ensuring that the child studies for another qualification such as Open University credits, parents are putting their children at a grave disadvantage if they do decide to go into higher education or even take some vocational courses.

Even if the child does not want to go into higher education, the GCSEs will come in handy. Simone's sister needed to have a basic knowledge of science and mathematics and when she went for the interview at the riding school; the proprietor wanted to be sure that she had English, mathematics and science at at least grade C. A couple of years ago she was toying with the idea of re-training as a mechanic. The course which she was considering required GCSE mathematics at B. Not having any GCSEs is a great disadvantage, even if you never want to go near university. Also worth remembering is this. For many people, a child who has been out of school for years and has not got any GCSEs can look very much like a child who has been excluded from school. I have seen this confusion arise when people are looking at my daughter. They are thinking, 'Uh Oh, something weird here. Why has she been out of school? Bad behaviour, learning difficulties?' The glittering array of GCSEs reassures these idiots. I don't myself much care what people like that think, but it could have a poor effect upon my daughter's chances. If she is applying for a job and they think that she is a no hoper who was chucked out of school and therefore has no qualifications, they are less likely to employ her. Application forms often do not give much room for such information. All the prospective employer might see is a blank box for GCSEs and under 'schools attended', the information, 'educated at home'. Many would rather play safe by calling for interview the applicant with a more conventional profile.

The decision not to take GCSEs can cast a very long shadow indeed. All I am saying is that perhaps parents should consider the implications of making such a decision carefully. The bad effects upon a child's future are certainly not limited to not being able to get to a Russell Group university, but can pursue them even if they do decide to become a carpenter or mechanic.