Friday, 7 August 2009

Higher education for the home educated child

One of the most enduring myths among home educating parents is that there is no particular need for their children to take GCSEs. They can be taken later if the child wants and even if they are not, it's quite possible to get into college or university without them. After all, didn't some autonomously educated teenager get a place at Oxford without having a single GCSE?

The first thing to bear in mind is that teenagers without any GCSEs who get into university to study academic subjects are so fantastically rare that we always hear of the same two; Alex Dowty and Chris Ford. Look at any article about home education successes and these will be the two cases cited, as though they were somehow typical. They are not. Alex Dowty's father is a well known barrister who works for a firm of solicitors. It was because his son had spent years working in a solicitor's office and studying law in this way that he was offered a place at Oxford. As for Chris Ford, although it is quite true that he was autonomously educated, he had to take A levels at college in order to gain a place at university.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, colleges of further education are now very rigid about their entrance criteria for A level courses. If you want to study for A level mathematics, you must have a GCSE at B or above. The same applies to subjects such as physics and chemistry. Where teenagers do get college places without any GCSE's, they tend to be on courses such as performing arts, textile design, art and photography. One can sometimes get onto these courses by audition or presentation of a portfolio. I hasten to add that I do not regard such subjects as being in any way inferior to more academic ones. It is just that if you do not enter your child for GCSEs, it is as well to be aware that you are almost certainly limiting his options, should he later wish to pursue more academic further education such as A levels.

Of course it may well be argued that getting into college or university is not the be all and end all of education. I agree wholeheartedly with this view. Deciding against higher education is though a serious step. It is one which should be taken by the teenager himself, rather than by his parents on his behalf. If a child is educated in such a way that GCSEs are not taken, then in a sense that decision has been made already, but by the parent. A fourteen or fifteen year old is, after all, unable to organise and pay for a thousand pounds worth of examinations. This is something that only a mother or father can arrange.

Deciding not to arrange for a child to take GCSEs is a very serious step indeed. The consequences for the young person are profound and long lasting. It is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly;still less should it be the default setting for home educators.


  1. I suspect there are several reasons why we only hear about two named home educators who have been accepted onto (non-arts based) university courses after autonomous education or with alternative qualifications. One reason might be privacy. Who wants their name bandied around the internet to make a point? Both of these young people have given their permission for their names to be made public but not all will want to do this. I know at least 3 young people who have gone on to non-arts based university courses after autonomous education but have not asked them if they will allow me to give their details out and have no intention of doing so. I believe you have been told about other children (without being given names) but you obviously doubt that they exist, so I'm not sure if it's even worth mentioning more to you.

    Another reason may be because these families have lost touch with current home educators. I know this is probably the case with at least 2 of the young people I know. I have gradually given less time to on-line home education forums myself over recent years, to the point that I only occasionally dipping in to one list with many posts being deleted unread in between. The current issues are the only reason I'm paying more attention to HE issues these days. This seems a natural evolution as interests change and the need for day-to-day support and information reduces as your children age and take more day-to-day responsibility for their own education. Maybe other parents are too busy organising all the correspondence courses and finding schools and colleges that accept external candidates to read and respond to lists!

    I do agree that the difficulties of taking GCSEs or finding alternatives have been a concern for us. Even art courses appear to require GCSEs but luckily in our case they accepted a portfolio of work along with a recommendation from an Open College of the Arts writing tutor and evidence of other written work prepared for the interview.

    Another child has enrolled at college to take GCSEs over one year and plans to go onto A levels next year. Luckily in this area, the college has a 6th form department that runs real GCSE courses as opposed to the more common revision GCSE courses, something that home educators need to be wary of. Many colleges list GCSEs but when you enquire they are only for people who need to re-take a subject previously studied. Not necessarily an issue if you know about it in advance and study the syllabus for the subjects you want in the year or two before enrolling at college, but potentially a problem if you make plans without being aware of this. Colleges seem to have gone backwards in this regard since 'my day' when full 'O' level evening courses were available.

    I would certainly agree that not looking into local availability of GCSE courses at college or via correspondence courses should not be taken lightly (we gave ours information about the Little Arthur School school and NEC in case they wanted to take the GCSE via correspondence option, and mentioned schools). Once we knew where their interests lay we made enquiries with relevant further, higher education departments and employers to find out what they really accept (don't just take lists on web sites at face value) and have gone on from there. So far one child has chosen to avoid GCSEs and is on the college course they wanted and another has taken the GCSEs at college route in preference to the Open University option (that we know would have been acceptable because they've accepted others with it). Yes, he will be a year behind school children, but he said he would rather have 12 gap years than 1!

  2. You know Sharon, people have certainly mentioned odd cases to me aapart from the two examples which I gave. Perhaps one here and two there. Here is why I am sceptical about this business. By my reckoning something like ten thousand home educated children have their sixteenth birthday each year. If anything more than tiny numbers of them were going into higher education, then we should be hearing about thousands of graduates and people in the professions. I can't see at all why they would seek to conceal it. If I think of any school, college or university I can easily find many people who have been there and joined various professions. I can tell you now that I spoke to the admissions staff at all the colleges and sixth forms in West Essex, Waltham Forest, Redbridge, Enfield and hackney. Not one had any home educated students, nor were they prepared to waive their admissions criteria for A level courses. I have asked people in other parts of the country and the picture seems to be similar. So while I am sure that in occasional cases it is possible to get a teenager into a college or university without any formal qualifications, I think it is very rare. I am baffled as to what all these tens of thousands of home educated teenagers do when they reach sixteen, but I am pretty sure that few of them go on to study A levels or attend university. Another big problem is that as you say, many colleges will do resits but do not actually run GCSE courses any more. I would like to see the names of some of these colleges and universities. Whenever I have been given a specific name I always check up at once. For example somebody posted about an access course at Dundee University. When I telephoned them they were amazed at the idea that they would admit anybody without GCSEs or A levels.

  3. Here are a few more information about HE and university taken from a Google search - mostly from newspaper reports.

    Gus, autonomously HE until 17, studied A levels at college and then on to Engineering at Exeter.

    Ben, educated at home and in his final year of a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge.

    J, 18 year old home educated boy just accepted by a 1st division University to study for an MPhys degree in Theoretical Physics

    19 year old Louis, 1st year student at London University studying philosophy.

    Ruth, 21, studying for a degree in Community and youth work at Durham University.

    Camilla, 18, went to school between 5 and 9 then HE until 16. Offers from 3 universities to study veterinary medicine.

    Hannah, HE between 14 and 16, gained 3 A levels at 16 and has been offered a place to study law in 2 years time. Brother Rubin, aged 13 is taking 2 A levels this summer.

    Alison, home educated then took GCSEs at college at 17, going on to an art foundation course and a BA in fine art.

    Dr Alan Thomas has followed up home-educated students into adulthood and says they're as varied a set of people as ex-school pupils. 'Most have gone to university. Some have done exceptionally well. Some decide not to go on to further education.

  4. Yes, I'm familiar with some of these cases. In each one where full details are known, they confirm my original premise; you don't get into university without a string of formal qualifications like GCSEs and A levels. Gus Harris-Reid, for instance, entered Exeter after taking GCSEs followed by A levels. The same applies to Chris Ford. I'm pretty sure that Ben Snook also had GCSEs, although I can't swear to it. Lois Barton managed to take A levels at Southgate College, but when I spoke to the Admissions Team there, they said that this is no longer possible. No GCSE in relevant subject, no A level course! Hannah Berry and her brother Rubin took their A levels at home, which is perfectly possible. I know a few families doing this, but it requires fantastically organised and structured education; school at home is understating the case.

    One of the problems is that most colleges have stopped running GCSE courses apart from resits. Increasingly, they are being rigid about the need for five GCSEs. I strongly disapprove of this, but that is the way things work now, largely due to technicalities about funding. Doing A levels at college without GCSEs is becoming very hard, although in some areas it can still be done.

    As for Alan Thomas's research, we run into the same problem which you mentioned in another post. There are simply too many unknown home educators for us to be sure what is typical and what is freakishly rare. People like Thomas and Rothermel get most of their data from questionnaires and appeals for volunteers via Education Otherwise and other organisations. In other words, a small subset to begin with, furthered narrowed by being self-selected. I think that we would all agree that what is needed is a large scale survey of a whole group selected at random, a bit like Rutter's work on the Isle of Wight.

    I became interested in this particular aspect of home education, when I saw people on HE-UK and to a lesser extent on EO mailing lists claiming that GCSEs and A levels were irrelevant and that it was possible to get into university as a home educated child just by interview or portfolio. Alex Dowty was always mentioned and so of course was Chris Ford. Many of those posting seemed to be quite unaware that Chris Ford actually took GCSEs and A levels in order to get to university. So far, as I have said before, I know one person who has got to university without a single GCSE or A level.

  5. Simon said,
    "Yes, I'm familiar with some of these cases. In each one where full details are known, they confirm my original premise; you don't get into university without a string of formal qualifications like GCSEs and A levels."

    The didn't intend to show GCSEs and A levels are not useful in gaining a university place with the list. I've already agreed that looking into the need for GCSEs, etc. for individual children is a good idea. If I had intended to suggest otherwise I wouldn't have included the ones that specifically mention GCSEs and A levels. It was more in answer to the wider point you made in your previous comment:

    "If anything more than tiny numbers of them were going into higher education, then we should be hearing about thousands of graduates..."

    The Alan Thomas quote was included purely to suggest that a reasonable number of HE children attend university, though obviously none of the research is able to help with proportions. Like you I have no real idea of how many go on to further education or university, hence my interest in researching further.

    "If I think of any school, college or university I can easily find many people who have been there and joined various professions"

    How have your daughter's HE friends faired after 16? Of the 14 HE young people aged between 16 and 24 that I know personally, all are in education, training or employment. A very small sample admittedly, but at least 2 of 14 should be NEET (not in education, employment or training) to match the national average. The only NEETs I know were not HE.

    Have you found any evidence to suggest that universities do not accept access courses and other alternative qualifications (such as OU courses) where they officially say they do? I've not heard of anyone having this specific problem. One person I know was provisionally offered a place at medical school if they gained the OU qualification they were studying for but they decided against accepting the place. I also know a young person who gained a partially science based degree as part of a job/training position after being accepted using OU courses instead of A levels. The only other experience I have is of speaking to an employer who accepts an OU course in place of A levels for employment that includes training leading to a science based degree (they had already accepted people on this basis and recommended that route). Of course I also know of several people who have gained arts degree places without GCSEs and A levels too, but as you say, they do tend to be more flexible and look at the work produced rather than qualifications gained.

    I understand that this whole area is a concern for HE parents and believe that they should seriously consider the issue based on their child's interests I also agree that in some cases it may be necessary to gain GCSEs and A levels. However, based on the experiences of people I know, it doesn't have to be an insurmountable problem.

    Another issue to consider is that HE children may be more aware of their interests, be very knowledgeable in these areas and have wider opportunities for relevant voluntary work. This may be enough to make them more employable than their school going peers and with current unemployment rates running at 19% for this age group, this may not be an insignificant advantage. I read recently that male English degree graduates are currently earning less than their peers without a degree!

  6. You raise some interesting points here. As far as universities go, no, they are not lying when they talk about access courses and non-standard qualifications. It's just that they are sometimes meaning something different from what we as home educators assume they mean. There are two reasons that universities claim that they will consider taking students who lack the necessary conventional qualifications, neither of which are intended to make life easier for home educated teenagers. The first is that the government is threatening to cut funding if some of the better universities don't start looking a little less elitist. This is why they say that they are not rigid about three A levels at A or B. Another reason is that they are desperately keen to attract foreign students, again it is to do with funding. This means that they will consider foreign qualifications which may be equivalent to GCSEs or A levels. Generally, they do not mean OU credits, although of course in some cases this has been allowed. Despite their supposed eqivalence, most universities are distinctly sniffy about some qualifications in this country which are said to be equal to GCSE. OCN springs to mind.

    You ask if I have heard of people who have been turned down in this way. When somebody posted details of a ten weeek access course at Dundee Unversity which led to a guarenteed place at Dundee on the HE-UK list, there was a lot of interest. Indeed, the Admissions Team was deluged! In fact there was not the slightest chance of any home educated teenager getting on this course. So although it looked as though this was a good way into a decent university, the trick was to restrict access to the Access Course itself! I have known this done elswhere.

  7. Simon said,
    "Generally, they do not mean OU credits, although of course in some cases this has been allowed."

    What about the universities that specifically list OU credits as suitable entry qualifications? I agree that it would be wise to contact the relevant person at the university for advice before starting an OU course with the aim of using it as an entry qualification, but I do know people that have been accepted with OU courses and many universities specifically list them as alternatives. So they either accept them or they are 'lying' on their web sites.

  8. Courses that accept OU credits sometimes specify how many they want, for example, see below;

    Applicants to the two year BSc (Hons) Mathematics Education programme must have the equivalent of one year's study in Higher Education in a mathematics related area. This may be an HND/HNC in a mathematics related subject or the successful completion of one year in Higher Education, again in a Mathematics related area. Open University students would need 120 credits in mathematics related modules.

    We also require three passes at GCSE grade C or above which must include Mathematics and English Language.

    You will notice that they also require a GCSE in mathematics. The problem can arise when students apply with certain OU courses or other qualifications which are not GCSE and claim that these are the equivalent of a GCSE. What sometimes happens is that somebody will, in effect, dump a whole load of qualifications on the table, including perhaps level 2 OCN courses in French, functional literacy tests, OU credits and such like and say that all these must add up to three A levels. Usually, they don't. In most cases, the universities want OU credits in addition to various other qualifications, not instead of.

  9. "You will notice that they also require a GCSE in mathematics.

    You appear to have quoted from Sunderland Universities web site above, but have conveniently (for your point) not included the next paragraph:

    "Applicants who do not possess GCSE Mathematics or English or their equivalent, may be given the opportunity to take a University Entrance Test in these subjects. Access to this test is only available after a satisfactory interview."

    But either way, it's easier and cheaper to acquire 2 or 3 GCSEs and OU credits than 5 GCSE and 3 A levels, so quite a good route. OU courses are free if you are on a low income plus you can get a grant of around £260 for study expenses and help to buy a computer. You can qualify for financial help if your household income is £30,000 (more if you have dependants). They accept students from 16 and I believe it's the students income they take into account when deciding the level of financial support offered. There are also other opportunities such as the 2+2 entry offered by some universities in partnership with the OU,,

    If a young person is interested in pursuing a science based degree they will be academically minded. If they have been autonomously educated it's highly likely that this will have been recognised and acted upon by the child and their family. I've certainly seen this within my own family. One child in particular is more academically minded than the others and has researched and chosen appropriate correspondence courses. How likely do you think it would be for a child who is totally uninterested in science and academic work to suddenly decide at 18 that they want to be a doctor? And even if this happened, would they have been any better off at school assuming they had the same lack of interest in academic work there?

  10. My word, Sharon, one would have to get up exceedingly early in the morning to put one over you! You are right, this is Sunderland University. However, the bit I left out confirms what I was saying. This is just like Dundee, of which I wrote above. Sunderland say that instead of GCSEs in maths and English, one can take a test at the university. Hurrah! No need for GCSEs at all. Oh, wait a moment though. I live on the outskirts of London, about five hours drive from Sunderland. So I would have to go up there,depending on the time of the interview perhaps stay the night in an hotel. Then go away again until they had decided whether or not I could take the test. Then go up again for the test itself. I have to tell you that I actually rang up Sunderland and tried to find out how many people enter the university through this procedure. They would not tell me. Their attitude seemed to be, "It's none of your damned business!", which is of course quite true. In the end, they admitted that "not many" took their test. As I say, it is just like Dundee. On the face of it, very encouraging, but when you look closer, not at all helpful.

  11. Did you read the rest of the post?

  12. Of course I read the rest of the post! The only problem is that I cannot get hold of anybody at Sheffield in order to check on the 2+2 programme. The person in charge seems to be a Simon Jones and the Undergraduates Admissions Secretary is Sandra Marshall (0114 22 29500)
    I want to see if this is just a flashy gimmick on the website to show how flexible they are, or whether or not anybody has actually managed to get a degree by this method. As soon as I get to speak to somebody, I shall let you know.

  13. I was thinking more of the point that even your example (2-3 GCSE + OU points) is easier and cheaper than 5 GCSEs and 3 A levels. So even if that's the best we can hope for (and I don't think this is the case) it's not that bad.

  14. Hmm, home ed kids could just bypass the whole convoluted system and do their degree with the OU and not worry about the entrance criteria? According to student based polls, it comes out in the top two universities for student satisfaction.

  15. For the record, I have 10 GCSEs, actually!
    - Ben Snook

  16. Here's a new example for you. My daughter, home-ed from age 9-16, was accepted at Swansea (Tycoch) college to study A level Chemistry and Physics when she hadn't done GCSEs in either. She is consistently top/joint top of the class and has just been awarded the title of 'Maths & Science Student of the Year, 2010.' She has six AS and will have four A level qualifications this year. She applied to five Unis and was accepted at four. Her first choice is joint Maths & Physics at Bath.

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