Sunday, November 15, 2009

A-level playing field looking patchy

Learning or cramfests?

Reached that time in life when my kids are off to 6th form college and have to knuckle down, and narrow down, in terms of subjects, which is a shame. No one really know what they want to do at 15, and if they do, it’s a probably a bad sign. If the answer is a doctor or lawyer, you can bet good money that a pushy parent has his or her hand up their offspring’s spineless back.

The good news is that A-Levels have been around since 1951 and are simply the de facto qualifications for UK Universities, with some cache on an international scale, as they are used by lots of Commonwealth countries. The bad news is that the A-level system is cripplingly restricted as it forces young people into 3 subjects far too early. Despite the Curriculum 2000 split into As and A2, you get students who are often one-sided, either Maths/Physics/other science OR English/Psychology /other arts. It’s this Manichean aspect of the system I don’t like. You see this in the culture. There’s the anti-science brigade versus the anti-arts brigade. Then there’s the ‘fill their heads with this stuff as quickly as possible’ approach to most subjects. It’s a cramfest.


The Scottish system is in one way better but in another a complete disaster. Their Highers, where students take 4/5/6 subjects usually give them more breadth. It’s a system I went through 35 years ago and hasn’t changed a bit. The downside is still the same; the stupidity of the lost sixth year, when most students switch off (University positions secured on Higher results). It’s a waste of time for no mother reason that lazy politics - preserving 4 year degrees in Scottish Universities.

International Baccalaureate

What a joy, then, to find an approach that is better than all of this, the International Baccalaureate. This has the right blend of breadth and depth, knowledge and skills, arts and science. Here’s the deal. You commit to doing:

3 Higher level courses and 2 Standard

Maths, English, Science and a language compulsory

Lots of choices in other subjects (philosophy, psychology, history)

150 hours of community, creative or active work over the two years

4000 word essay on a subject you’re passionate about

core theory of knowledge course

This is recognised by universities worldwide, and the smart ones see the benefit in the rounded education the student receives, preparing themselves for University, and life. I spoke to a bunch of these kids at Varndean College in Brighton, in both their first and second years of study and have never, ever, come across a more enthusiastic bunch of learners in my life. They absolutely love their course. It’s hard work, they say, but the classes are small, the work interesting and projects inspiring. The course also attracts a wider mix of students, with more international breadth. Some were quite keen on studying abroad. They seemed way wiser than the A-level herd I spoke to that same evening. Far more confident in the fact that they were ‘learning’ rather than completing a series of separate and unrelated qualifications. It stops kids taking pure analytic courses or a set of oddball A-levels, presenting a balanced set of options with a solid analytic approach. It's about the learner, not the qualifications.

We’re stuck with these dated, national systems, struggling to translate credits from one country to another, yet here’s a solution staring us in the face. I hope at least one of my lads will take this course. He’s keen, but it’s his decision.

Footnote: Welsh Baccalaureate

Interesting to see Wales take a lead, of sorts, here, ahead of England, Scotland and N Ireland, by introducing their own Baccalaureate. Available at three levels, Basic, Intermediate and Advanced, studies from the Universities of Nottingham and Bath have been positive, producing a wider, more skills-based approach to pre-University qualifications. However, it lacks the core subject approach that the IB offers, and has less traction as a qualification, even in the UK.


Harold Jarche said...

My observations of local kids doing the IB programme is that they have almost no time away from their studies and that the focus is almost all academic with lip service paid to community service. Both our boys decided against that option, as there would be no time for competitive sports or activities like drama. Not sure if it's the same in the UK.

Donald Clark said...

Here, it's over two years and the community, sports thing is compulsory at 150 hours, and has to be logged as such. The timetable is heavier than A-levels in year 1 one but lighter in year 2, with no exams at end of year 1. The kids I spoke to seemed very active in other activities, more so than the A-level kids I spoke to on the same visit. Maybe there's differences in delivery country by country.

IB grad said...

The trouble with IB is that when IB-graduates go on to University they often become demotivated and disillusioned in their first year... it's a bit of a cold shower.

But one can hardly blame IB for that!

The upsycho said...

There's so much in this post I agree with, and a few things I don't. However, I'd just like to pick up on one point...

I seem to remember that your boys fall between mine in terms of ages, so we're looking at the same sort of ball park.

I'm not sure that it is necessarily a Bad Thing when a kid knows what they want to do from an early age. I know it probably goes against your dyed in the wool cynical grain, but some people just identify their 'calling' early in life. I was not one of those, neither was my husband or our elder son... and I have elderly relatives who still haven't decided what they want to be if/when they finally get around to growing up.

But my younger son saw some cooling towers being imploded when he was three years old and has burned with a passion for explosive demolitions ever since then. He is now 16. He knows that there are months and sometimes years of dirty work before the big boom, and is totally sold on the idea of working out exactly where the charges need to go, how powerful they need to be, etc. etc. and bringing a building down neatly. It is totally in keeping with the sort of person he is and with the way his mind works, so I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly what he ends up doing. He has even sorted his gap year placement with a company to be recommended by the chairman of the association of explosives engineers.

He is a kid who fins uncertainty stressful. He likes to know where he's going and exactly how he's going to get there. Doesn't that sound rather like a structural engineering type, to you? And I think I'd rather have someone like that in charge of bringing a structure down than someone like me, you or Jay Cross!


Diana Muir said...

Although the IBO program is excellent for those that can afford it, it is unreachable for 90% of the world's students. The Hawking Foundation has recently created the World Virtual School PreK-20 which offers free online ESL and Computer Foundations courses worldwide, and other career-vocational and diploma courses, through membership fees that are based on a country's GDP. In other words, students in Zimbabwe can take 6 courses each year for $1USD, while students in the USA pay $225 for 6 courses per year.

We have also created an International Diploma Program, that while similar to IBO, is more global in nature, more inclusive, and available entirely online.

We encourage people to review our offerings at All teachers are highly qualified and we also integrate Wimba virtual classroom, whiteboard, real-time audio and the Rosetta Stone Classroom with more than 30 world languages.

Funded by donations and grants, the World Virtual School is open to all at minimal cost for students.

As you've said, education is becoming increasingly "free" and we wish to make it free for all.

Diana Muir
World Virtual School

Unknown said...


Great and nice news, the good news is that A-Levels have been around since 1951 and are simply the de facto qualifications for UK Universities, with some cache on an international scale, as they are used by lots of Commonwealth countries.

- J.
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