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.
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.