The weatherman and the rules

When I was little, my family used to go and stay with my grandmother at the seaside. She had one of those weather-houses, the kind made in the shape of an alpine chalet, where a little woman would come out if the weather was dry and a little man would come out if it was likely to wet. I remember once when we had a day out planned and the little man came out. I pushed him back in hope of discouraging the rain. My infant mind had of course confused cause and effect; I thought that the man was actually causing the bad weather, rather than merely foretelling it.

I think that I know now how that little man in the weather-house must have felt! I have in the past drawn attention to some of the unspoken rules which govern university admissions. I did so again yesterday, which irritated a few people. I can't really see why this should be; I don't make these rules and neither do I approve of them. I just think that it is important that everybody is aware of them. Those in independent schools already know them by and large. Ignorance of these rules harms the prospects of children at maintained schools or who are being educated at home and so I think it good to create a level playing field by telling everybody the hidden rules which one seldom hears teachers mention in state schools. Since almost half of all children will go to university, this is not an esoteric, minority interest, but something which it is vital to know about. It affects a lot of children. The stranglehold of the independent schools upon good universities is maintained by these rules and yet judging by some of the comments yesterday, a number of parents are happy for this to continue. I am not. I want all children from all backgrounds to know what they should do if they wish to go to a prestigious university.

I have mentioned before the importance of GCSEs in getting in to university. I am not going to go on about this again, except to say that I have been saying this for years and that this particular cat is really out of the bag now. So too is the importance of having a string of A* GCSEs if you wish to have as wide a range of choices as possible when applying for university. As was said in yesterday's Telegraph:

Martin Stephen, the High Master of St Paul’s School, west London, said that some universities rejected students who failed to get a string of elite A*s at GCSE.
“The A* is being used as a crude, preliminary filter which is hugely regrettable because it simply discriminates against the late developer,”

This too is not generally emphasised in maintained schools. The school gets no extra credit for kids who get A*s and so it is not a big thing. The league tables are concerned with A*-C, so the focus is more upon getting those predicted Ds into the C category. Most parents at maintained schools do not even realise that a clutch of A*s is necessary if you wish to take your pick of universities. Those at independent schools usually do know this.

The lack of knowledge about the importance of GCSEs and the vital role of the A* is one way that children who do not attend independent schools are decanted into poorer universities or end up doing vocational course instead. There are other cunning methods and these kick in during A levels. My daughter's college announced last week that the percentage of students getting As at A level had tripled in one year! This reminds me of the sort of speech that one heard in the Soviet Union when they were announcing a bumper harvest or the hug number of tractors being made or something. You just know that there is more to it than meets the eye. Still, three times the number of As at A levels. Surely this means teaching which is three times as good, or students working three times as hard, or both? Actually, it means three times as many students being pushed to take up useless A levels like photography and media studies. Photography is a boom subject in many maintained schools. Friends of ours have children who are being urged to take this at A level. If you want to boost your sixth form's A level results, get more of the kids to do photography. The same goes for media studies. There is a terrible problem though and it is one which one seldom hears in maintained schools or FE colleges

All A levels are not equal. If you wish to get into a Russell Group university, A levels in photography or media studies will not be counted. This is another of those rules which many kids at state schools are not told. One of the teenagers at the Oxford summer school with my daughter had a load of A* GCSEs and really wanted to go to Oxford. She was however doing business studies, law and accountancy. All three of these A levels are useless if one wishes to go to Oxford. her school had not told her this when she made her choices and so she was effectively barred from many universities. It seems weird really. You might think that A level law or A level accountancy would be academic A levels which top universities would love. They are not. They are in the same category as photography. Another piece of information which state pupils are not told. Psychology is, on paper, a scientific subject like physics. Many universities though will not accept it.

The aim of sixth forms and FE colleges is to get as many students to pass A levels as possible. The more As that they achieve; the better. So it make sense to get them to push subjects which their pupils are more likely to pass, such as law and photography. The fact that these subjects effectively bar them from many universities is not revealed. It is another unspoken rule that many parents and children never learn.

In the ideal world, all children and their parents would have access to the sort of information which I have outlined above. Many do not. The children of our friends who will be studying photography and media studies will have, despite many good GCSEs, no chance at all of getting into Oxford, UCL, Cambridge or the LSA. At the age of sixteen, their schools have, in effect, made their choice for them about the universities that they will go to. This is shocking but very common in the state sector. I would not like to see home educated children in this position, which is why I have talked about this. Mind you, judging by the comments yesterday, I shall probably be described as 'extreme' or as having a chip on my shoulder about Oxbridge! As I said above, now I know how that little weatherman felt.