Non-standard UK qualifications

Last week I was accused of being fixated on GCSEs and A levels and not acknowledging that there were other, equally useful qualifications to be had by the home educated child. This is a very fair point and so I thought it might be worth looking a little at the alternatives to the standard qualifications in this country and seeing if any of them might be preferable for those being educated at home.

The first point to consider is this. The higher education system and also most employers are geared to the GCSE and A level. This may be regrettable, but it is indisputably true. Further Education colleges ask for five GCSEs if a teenager wishes to study for A levels, universities require A levels to study for a degree, training courses for plumbers ask for four GCSEs, even a shopkeeper or garage owner may well insist on GCSEs in English and mathematics. This means that anybody hoping that alternative qualifications will do the trick for their children is immediately putting those children into the position of being guinea pigs for a risky venture. It is not only home educating parents who do this. Schools and colleges are also conducting experiments of this kind with the International Baccalaureate and the New Diploma. Here is an analogy. Hikers usually ascend mountains wearing stout boots and thick socks. Imagine that somebody insists on trying to climb up while barefoot or wearing only flip-flops. It might be possible, but for every person who succeeds, there will be many who cannot manage it. This is what it is like for those who want their children to take non-standard qualifications. A few may do well, but it is hard to see the motive for avoiding the conventional path in the first place, except through sheer perversity!

Let us look at the alternatives to GCSEs and A levels, not just from the perspective of home educators, but also schools and colleges. One famous alternative to A levels is the International Baccalaureate. Some schools have adopted this in recent years because the standards are set quite independently of any government and are far more rigorous than A levels. There are two problems with the IB. Yesterday I mentioned the London Borough of Enfield, a local authority with which I have had quite a few dealings. One of the schools there, Highlands, decided a few years ago to be pioneers and scrap A levels entirely in favour of the International Baccalaureate. Big mistake. Because unlike A levels, it is perfectly possible to fail the IB entirely. In 2008, the sixth formers leaving Highlands found this to their cost. Almost half of them, 46% in fact, failed the IB. This meant that they had nothing at all to show for their two years further education. I cannot tell you how furious the parents were! Highlands dropped the IB and went back to A levels. Other schools found the same thing. Another problem with the IB is that universities are, as I said above, geared to GCSEs and A levels. They will accept the IB, but most are not as happy with it as they are with A levels, despite what they say on their websites.

A similar experiment has been carried out with the new Diploma. One local FE college decided to encourage many of those who wished to study for A levels to do instead a diploma, claiming that it would be worth three or four A levels and that universities would accept it as well as A levels. This is quite untrue and those foolish enough to be used as guinea pigs for this scheme are now finding that they are going to have great difficulties with getting into the universities of their choice.

Some parents have got their children to sit the National Tests in Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALAN). In theory, Level 2 is equivalent to GCSEs in English language and mathematics, grades A*-C. This may in theory be so, but you will have trouble persuading a college to accept these as being equal to GCSEs if you are trying to access an A level course. A serious difficulty with these qualifications is that they look the sort of thing which an illiterate person might have taken after going to remedial classes. This is not always the impression which one hopes to give to a prospective employer. Combined with a blank space in the box for secondary school, the whole tone of an application form for a job might be seriously jeopardised by such a qualification.

We recently saw a teenager from Wiltshire get into Exeter University on the strength of Open University credits alone, without any GCSEs or A levels. This has been done before, although it is not common. Once again, we come up against the problem of a system which is geared to GCSEs and A levels, together with certain recognised foreign qualifications. One has to ask one's self, what is the advantage here for the child? Gaining 190 points at the OU is very hard work, but if you are going to embark on such structured academic work, why choose a scheme so radically different from that with which universities are familiar? It is in any case unlikely that this is, or will become, a common way of entering university.

I can see, although do not think it wise, that some parents wish to allow their children to make free choices about the type and degree of education which they have. For those who are going to embark upon structured study though, it is the responsibility of the parents to research the options carefully and consider all the implications. What I find utterly baffling is that any family would deliberately set out to obtain qualifications which would make it harder for their children to get jobs or university places than would be the case if they stuck to the same things as everybody else, i.e. GCSEs and A levels. The only possibility that I can see is that these are people who like to do things the hard way, who enjoy a struggle. That is a perfectly good decision for an adult to make about her own life. After all, if I wish to make things difficult for myself, that is my affair. I could start walking everywhere backwards if I liked or with my eyes closed. However, the case is altered somewhat when the future life of a child is concerned. In such a case, to set out upon a course of action which will make it harder for the child to get on in life than is the case for a schooled child, seems to me foolish and irresponsible. I was disgusted with Highlands school when they gambled with the future of their sixth form pupils and I was horrified to see our local college trying to get loads of bright kids to sign up to the New Diploma. I feel exactly the same way about parents who ignore the evidence and pursue an unconventional route for their teenage children. Why would you take such a gamble?