Monday, November 03, 2014

The Gatekeepers

One of the worst things you can do, in my opinion, is write someone off academically on the basis of their achievements so far. It's an easy way out – far easier than being imaginative and looking at things in a different way. 

These thoughts were prompted by a visit to an event at the House of Lords on 30th September. Having been invited by Professor Margaret Cox, I attended a Reception there. This event, organised by the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP) was hosted by the Right Honourable Baroness Blackstone, the purpose being to discuss matters of education, and in particular higher education. Universities, we heard, not only have a preference for students to have three A-levels, but to have them in particular subjects at particular (high) grades. 

Nothing new in this, of course, except that what struck me was the inflexibility of the system as it seems to be now. It's always dangerous to use one's own experience as an example, but I'll do it anyway. When I was applying to read a degree, I was given a conditional offer by a university of: 

  • Economics: grade B minimum
  • Economic History: grade B minimum
  • English: grade C minimum 

Unfortunately, I obtained a B in English and a C in Economic History. I sent them a pleading letter, and they accepted me anyway. I have a strong impression that were I applying today I may not have been so fortunate. 

There are two unfortunate consequences of all this. One is the obvious one that students who could do well at university given a chance are not given that chance. Another is the fact that there is little point in exhorting schools to be more imaginative and innovative in what they offer their students, because university entrance seems to be dependent on such a narrow range of achievements. 

I understand the universities' point of view in some subjects. If, for example, a student has not achieved an A Level in maths, how will they even begin to cope with a degree in physics?
Now, I have no experience of dealing with university entrance, but I do have experience of teaching kids who have, in effect, been written off. Young people who have been placed on unchallenging courses partly because nobody really wants to bother with them and partly, mainly, because nobody thinks they would be capable of achieving much in a more challenging course. 

However, students know when they are on a "Mickey Mouse" course, and they also rise to the challenge of a more demanding one. Obviously, some students will not do well on a more challenging course, even with lots of help and guidance. But at least they will have had the opportunity to do so and, if the course has been organised properly, will still come out with a certificate of some description that shows the skills and knowledge that they have acquired. 

It seems to me that most universities could definitely do more. How about, for example, pre-course courses to bring promising students up to the requisite standard? If they don't pass, they don't get to do the degree proper. 

I realise that there would be potential problems with such an approach, but I am arguing for a twofold change: 

1. Look at a broader range of achievements than A Level grades alone
2. Put into place extra courses or support where necessary

If I, as a humble schoolteacher, was able to get around 90% of "written off" students a GCSE grade C or higher in Information Technology, I'm sure university professors could achieve something similar. 

Mirandanet was also represented at the event, and you can read a more dispassionate view by Sarah Younnie on the Mirandanet website.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please visit the ICT in Education website at, where I write about education technology, ICT and Computing in education.

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