Saturday, 31 October 2009

The way the wind is blowing

One sometimes sees a news item which although seemingly trivial in itself, appears on reflection to indicate something of a sea change in attitudes or opinions. One such appeared a few days ago. It was to the effect that some high profile employers take at least as much notice of the GCSEs which a prospective employee has, as they do of the quality of his or her degree. This could have serious repercussions in the world of home education. A number of universities already set more store than others by GCSEs when making offers; Oxford for example expects as routine, six or eight at A*.

For some years now, the feeling among home educators is that they don’t generally need to bother with GCSEs and if they do then it need only be English and Mathematics. It is common to hear remarks like, “Oh, nobody takes GCSEs seriously now, they’re completely devalued”. Or again, “It’s up to my daughter if she takes any exams”. All the evidence is that precisely the opposite is happening, that is to say rather than becoming less important as the years go by, GCSEs appear to be actually growing in significance for employers, universities and colleges of further education. I have mixed feelings about this trend, but it is undeniably true that this seems to be the way that things are moving.

I have of course remarked before on the number of colleges and sixth forms who will not accept as A level students any teenager who does not have at least five GCSEs. This means in practice that home educated children often end up on arts based courses rather than academic ones. This is because these are the sort of courses which can be accessed by audition or portfolio. Even studying GCSEs when they are sixteen is becoming very hard. Few areas now have colleges which offer GCSE courses and those that do often want the student already to have some GCSEs, a genuine Catch 22 situation! If employers too are going to start grading job applicants, even those who have degrees, by the number of GCSEs, then the prospect for teenagers who have none at all may soon be pretty bleak.

Many parents do not face up to this problem until their children are fourteen. Sometimes they then try and enter them for a few GCSEs, only to discover that the child has not the necessary skills to apply herself for the sustained and methodical study needed to take a formal qualification like the GCSE. Others pin their hopes on Open University points and various non-conventional examinations in basic English. Unfortunately, both colleges and universities tend to be a little sniffy about some of this. They actually want GCSEs.

This is not really leading anywhere in particular, I am just thinking out loud. I can assure readers that I do not myself especially value GCSEs, but many do. I have a strong suspicion that a few years down the line it will be all but impossible for a child to gain access to either a job or post sixteen education without the them. This would of course really make autonomous education impossible, proving even more effective than anything which Graham Badman’s report recommends. The New Diplomas are not really suitable for home educated children and neither is the International Baccalaureate. The bad news is that the GCSEs themselves are moving towards a system where controlled assessments in the classroom will be needed.

I am guessing that pretty soon home educating parents will be faced with two choices. Either they will continue to reject studying as a routine business for GCSEs, in which case their children will not be able to go on to college or university, or indeed get any but the most menial job. Failing this they will be obliged to register their children at least part of the time at schools so that they are able to take GCSEs there and take part in the controlled assessments and so on which must be undertaken in classrooms. Either way, I think that the days of home educators refusing to engage with the educational system at all could well be numbered.


  1. Hi Simon,

    I wonder if you might be missing the point of autonomy, if we're autonomous, it doesn't mean we can't do GCSE's etc., it means we can look at all the options and decide what to do for ourselves. I expect if it turns out to the case that no one is able to get a job without having taken GCSE's, more people will start taking them!

    Looknig at your last paragraph I'm wondering if *I'm* missing something - I thought GCSE's could be taken as correspondence courses? Or studied for independently, before paying the exam fee and registerring for the exam? I have heard that the student might need to travel a long distance to reach an exam centre that takes independent candidates.

    Looking at it from another angle, it could be a good thing if lots of 14/15yos decided to register with schools to take GCSE exams. Schools have this show of democracy and "student councils" etc. and maybe home educated young people might be able to help transform the schooling system into something more suitable... They might talk about their previous home education, and that could lead to younger children being aware of the different options and relating them to their parents. So it could turn out that we lose the situation where families of unhappy children don't realise that school is only one option. And that would be a good thing.

    Fiona M

  2. I don't think I was missing the point of autonomy, Fiona. I am well aware that some children choose to study for GCSEs. Many do not, because neither they nor their parents see any point in them. Sometimes such families prefer to take OU courses. It is still possible to take GCSes as correspondence courses, but as coursework fades out and is replaced by controlled assessments, this will become all but impossible in some subjects. IGCSEs should remain an option.

  3. Fiona is probably referring to IGCSE's. However, I am beginning to quite like her idea of scores of 14-15 year olds entering the school system to study GCSE's. However, in my area, chance would be a fine thing, there are no school places. But at least then, the LA would have to provide some tuition and at least the GCSE should be paid for. (I imagine, albeit, with a fight)

    I am one of those that didn't give this GCSE thing much thought until Simon brought it up on the lists. I assumed, because this was the 'advice' often given, that children could go to college at 14 or 16 and do them.

    I accepted this advice.


    When I looked into it, there are not that many colleges, at least in my area, that do GCSE's, and of those that do, many only offer resit courses.

    So whilst many home educators on lists offer well meaning advice based on their experience, unfortunately, it can sometimes be out of date in this VERY fast changing educational world.

    So whilst I politely disagree with you on many issues Simon, I belatedly thank you for bringing to my attention that studying GCSE's in a local college isn't the option I was advised it would be.

  4. maybe home educated young people might be able to help transform the schooling system into something more suitable...


    I don't want to leap to any conclusions and use them as a reply, so might I ask for some clarification of what you meant by that ?

  5. IGCSEs should remain an option.


    How are they perceived by employers/higher education institutes ? Is there any preference for GCSE over IGCSE, possibly based on familiarity rather than anything else ?

    IGCSE is the direction I am leaning it at present (underlining at present, since my son is only nine years old, there is no firm planning going on just looking ahead at the options) but not living in the UK it is difficult to get an understanding of any gap between the blurb about the exams and the perception in the real world.

  6. At the university where I work you find students of all ages studying for a range of qualifications at different levels. I don't see any evidence that routes through the system are becoming more restricted - the opposite if anything.

    When it comes to jobs, well that all depends on what you want do, doesn't it?

    Simon, this piece smacks rather of "put the frighteners on crazy people who think they can do things differently to me". Not your intention I'm sure...

  7. Sarah, IGCSEs are more highly regarded by universities than GCSEs. although technically they are equivalent. The reason is that they can be done without coursework and consequent cheating. Also, they are more demanding. The IGCSE mathematics for example, requires a knowledge of calculus which is not needed until A level usually. My daughter took IGCSEs and is currently studying for A levels. She finds much of the As stuff she has already covered for the IGCSE.

  8. Oh yes, and mature students (21 and over - hardly 'over the hill') often have a fantastic time at university - applying themselves far more than younger people who are more easily distracted by the other 'attractions' of student life.

    This is from the university where I work,

    "We are strongly committed to broadening access to university and welcomes applications from students with qualifications and experience beyond the traditional A/AS level route.

    We recognise that mature students bring their own unique and varied combination of academic and life skills, and we’ll work to understand your aims, ambitions and abilities. As well as your school record and the qualifications you may have gained, admissions tutors are interested in what you have achieved since you left school.

    A large proportion of our students enter university with non-standard qualifications such as an accredited access course, a professional qualification or an Open University foundation course. Relevant experience can also be regarded as equivalent to formal qualifications."

    No need to panic if your child hasn't got eight A*s by sixteen.

  9. Which university are we talking about here, Allie? A lot have access courses for mature students, but when eighteen year olds without GCSEs apply for them, they are given the brush off. I am very interested in this. Are you saying that at the university where you work, there are students studying academic subjects who have no GCSEs at all? If so, I would like to hear more. Occasionally, rumours start about access courses that will get teenagers into university without any GCSEs or A levels, Dundee was mentioned a while ago. When one actually rings and talks to people though, it turns out not to be the case. Could you give a few more details about this, because it sounds quite good for home educators. I would not say that I am putting the frighteners on anybody at all, just warning of possible problems. The accepted story about colleges for a long time was that 14 and 15 year old home educated youths could go and study at them for GCSEs. As some are now discovering, this is rarely the case. Now the same thing is said of universities. Whenver I make contact with universities, they are astonished at the idea of a teenager expecting to get a place without having any formal qualifications.

  10. When it comes to jobs, well that all depends on what you want do, doesn't it?


    And where.

    Not all countries have the same policies, you may have ticked all the educational qualification boxes to do that job in the UK and then find yourself disbarred from the onset for applying for the same position in a slew of countries.

    I understand that may not be a consideration for some HEing parents if they do not expect their child to want to emigrate, work overseas, travel extensively using work to support their journey or go on to study abroad.

  11. "Which university are we talking about here, Allie? A lot have access courses for mature students, but when eighteen year olds without GCSEs apply for them, they are given the brush off. I am very interested in this."

    Allie, do you know how many applicants from access courses they accept on average each year? How do they fare compared to traditional applicants?

    Our local colleges access courses are available from age 19, does anyone know if this is a common phenomenon or just local?

    One of my children has been told (by the employer) that the best qualification for the job (which involves a mixture of work and study for a degree) is a science based access course run by the local college and they only need Maths and English GCSEs for this course. Officially no qualifications are required, but when we went to see them they said that it's a popular course so you really need Maths and English GCSEs with a good pass.

  12. IGCSEs are more highly regarded


    Thank you for the info.

  13. I can't claim detailed knowledge of how the access courses are filled. This is what the website of one of our local colleges says about their access courses,
    "One of the key features of Access to HE Diploma courses is that you are not required to have any particular previous qualifications to start - and it doesn't matter how long it is since you last studied. The Access to HE Diploma course will help you to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence you need to prepare you for university, without any assumptions about what you may have done in the past."

    If those courses are over-subscibed then I can see that there may be things that will give you an advantage. Those may be gcses - I don't know because I have no personal experience of that situation. I imagine there would be other ways to promote yourself - other courses of study or whatever.

    Simon says,
    "Are you saying that at the university where you work, there are students studying academic subjects who have no GCSEs at all?"
    Yes, I can certainly say that because there are undergraduates who are well in to their forties or fifties! Many of them had a poor experience in education the 'first time round' and though I don't know what their previous qualifications may be, I don't imagine they have a tip top set of old O levels.

    I think that alternative routes are certainly easier if you are over twenty one and can demonstrate your personal commitment to study.

    I'm not naming the university at which I work because I like to try to keep work and home life separate :-)

  14. I'm not naming the university at which I work because I like to try to keep work and home life separate :-)


    I think you may well have revealed it inadvertently. I can be contacted via my profile. I have no wish to point out to on a public forum how to find out where you work.

  15. Wrong, it is not on my profile...

  16. Every one of these access courses at universities that I have actually enquired about, the staff make it fairly clear that it is not aimed at young people who are home educated and have no qualifications. That was why I wondered where you worked Allie. The target group is generally mature students and even then the demand for places is so great that they can afford to be a bit fussy. On the face of it and just reading the information put out by these places, it often looks like a good option for home educated young people; the reality is a little different. This why many home educating parents become involved in a suden rush for their children to take a few GCSes at fourteen or fifteen. Law at oxford, for instance, requires no A levels in theory, but the one inflexible demand is for GCSE mathematics. I don't think, Allie that eight A* GCSes would be needed generally to gain access to college, that sounds like overkill, but most require five GCSEs at A* to C. Where they have no minimum requirement for courses, often the things are so in demand that they introduce a need for GCSEs. This is not me putting the frighteners on people, just sharing useful information. I don't mind if anybody does things my way; I am explaining why it was necessary.

  17. Oh, it's not a secret where I work, I'd just rather not bring it into the conversation by name.

    I have said that I think alternative routes to university are easier if you're over 21. But, of course, home educated young people do have that option open to them at 21 - like anyone else. And, as I have said, mature students often get more out of university than younger students.

    There are such things as GCSE equivalence tests and adult ed classes which can be used to fill a need like a maths GCSE requirement.

    I think that it can be a problem not to have the qualifications you need for something. It can also be a problem to devote years of your life to chasing after qualifications for their own sake - not to say expensive these days...

    I don't doubt that you have looked into all this, Simon. Perhaps you know far more about it than I do. But, I just find your conclusions odd when what I have observed over the last ten years or so has been a real widening in access to higher education, with a far greater diversity of students studying at a range of levels.

  18. I think that there has been a widening of opportunity re access courses for mature students but on the other hand there has been a decrease in the number of GCSE options for post 16 students who may have formerly left these qualifications until then. The real key is to check your local situation and keep checking; the govt has put a lot of money into vocational qualifications, which are fine if that is what you want to do, but can be unhelpful if the student actually intended to head towards academic qualifications such as A levels and then can't find the GCSE courses to get them there.

    As for access courses, yes, that is a possible way into uni, and I know several mums who have gone down that route, but I suppose my own feeling is why reinvent the wheel? - if GCSEs/IGCSEs are available then if it is not completely impossible in terms of finance to take them pre 16, getting them out of the way seems a sensible idea - they can only open doors for future study?

  19. Well Simon, it does seem to me that you misunderstand autonomous education. Reading your post leads me to think that you think parents of AE children are behaving in an irresponsible way, by not deciding that certain things are more important than others and forcing their children to study them.

    Rather than a problem that needs to be faced up to, I see GCSE's as a possible option for my children in the future (although possibly less possible than before?!). I can't tell the future obviously but it would be a bit odd if it were to turn out that to be employed in certain jobs, a person had to take the course/s they needed at a certain age, and once passed that age there would be no option ever to train for those careers. (Especially when the courses concerned - GCSE's - are relatively easy)

    My HEed daughter is just 8 so it's not an immediate concern but I find it helpful to follow discussions like this, although I bear in mind that the situation varies from place to place, so if my daughter wants to think about taking GCSE's we'll have to do alot of research to see if it's possible rather than take it for granted that she'll be able to.

    Hi Sarah, I meant maybe the young people could help to make the school system suit themselves in whichever way is helpful to them, I didn't think in more detail than that.

    Fiona M

  20. I honestly do not think that this has anything to do with autonomous education Fiona! I have not created the current situation and do not like it. I have however felt that I have had to work with things as they are, rather than as I sould wish them to be. I put that post up because I have known parents whose children wanted to study A levels at sixteen and found they could not get into college without GCSEs. Their parents had assured them that this would not matter and then they found that it did. Obviously, not every child will wish to go into further education, I just thought it worth pointing out.

  21. You know, there ARE some myths around regarding HE'd kids and qualifications/access to university etc etc

    It is the same information old-timers told me when we started out 14/15 years ago. That information WAS true then. But not now. The picture has radically altered. I'm wondering why it is that the myths have have not caught up with reality? Perhaps it's that the experienced HE'ers, whose kids have successfully transitioned to FE/HE/employment, tend to drop out of the HE scene?

    Thankfully, there are a few who have lingered at the HEexamsandalternatives yahoo group who are able and willing to offer advice based on their experience.

    I'm not sure about Simon's assertions that GCSE's are as important as A Levels to unis, though. I don't doubt that unis tell parents who enquire that this is the case, but in our experience, HE'd kids tend to get interviews at unis based on a)their predicted grades at A level, obviously, but also, partially, simply because they were HE'd. A few IGCSE's help, but grades don't seem to influence the admissions people as much as an interesting education. And HE is definitely something which makes a candidate stand out.

    For eg, a friend's ds was asked to interview at Cambridge (got a place, but turned it down) and the first thing the interviewer wanted to talk about was his HE experience. He had an unremarkable clutch of IGCSE/GCSE's, not the standard 10-12 A*'s you'd expect from a school-educated applicant to Cambridge.

    I think we should be careful not to neglect the education of the whole child, the interesting experiences, the voluntary opportunities, the sports, music etc, in our 14-16 students, simply in order to get excellent I/GCSE results. Good unis will also be looking for experiences which make the candidate stand out as interesting, as well as proof they can cope with the workload.

    Mrs Anon

  22. I agree with you 100% Mrs. Anon! I do not think that GCSEs should be pursued if it means neglecting music, physical activities, hobbies and so on. I have seen many such children at school and they remind me of a cloned group from Brace New World. All with identical knowledge about a certain book and so on. I don't think though, that getting good grades at GCSE and having a rich cultural life and stimulating hobbies and interests are mutually exclusive options. It does take a little work to maintain the balance though.

  23. In the above, I was of course referring to the novel by Aldous Huxley, not some cable channel which specialises in the sale of belts and braces.

  24. Mrs Anon said..."I'm not sure about Simon's assertions that GCSE's are as important as A Levels to unis, though."

    Interesting point, this. When I was (a real paid) teacher, GCSEs grades didn't matter much - it was all down to A levels,
    although this was when it wasn't the norm to have a huge spread of A grades anyway - even really good candidates might have the odd B and C grades in a variety of subjects. Now the norm for many students from school is a consistent run of A or higher grades. What is noticeable is that the collge where my dd is doing A levels take an enormous amount of notice of GCSEs grades - their whole grading and predictive grade system is based on it. So the score they get from these grades persist throughout the 2 years of college - they do some weird maths on them and turn them into a predicted grade; if you are then working above that grade (based on test scores) then your grade may, in the long term go up one level, or the opposite may be true, but otherwise that will be the basis of the predicted scores submitted to uni; This in some ways means that my daughter has low scores, because her GCSE passes number 5 (although she also has 2 other GCSE equivalents they don't get points, nor do her 2 AS levels) despite the fact that she has A grade passes at GCSE in her chosen A level subjects. She is a hard worker so will score a grade higher by her efforts - but her predicted grades could never get above a C because the number of her GCSEs is relatively few, compared to the standard 9 or so of her school educated counterparts. This doesn't matter to her at all, because she is unlikely to be destined for a traditional university (it is difficult to see how she could cope autism wise) so OU seems more likely, and any way she could get round this by applying post results and defer a year, but it is again an interesting phenomenon that we couldn't have foreseen. One of her HE friends who went to college on the basis of 3 IGCSEs and a maths A level passed before 16 is similarly affected - he is clearly a high flyer, as seen by taking maths A level at 14, but will need to apply to UCAS after A levels to get a chance of getting into where he wants to go.

  25. Thanks Julie, this is pretty much what I was talking about. It wasn't until my daughter actually started at college that this aspect of matter discovered itself to us. Yes, predicted grades at A are all based upon the GCSEs and the college are quite inflexible about this. If you got a C at maths, then you are only predicted a B for A level and they do total up all the GCSEs and see what they amount to. We know a child who managed to get into college with just two GCSEs in English and Maths, but her predicted grades are hopeless as a result.

  26. I guess the solution to that one (if you want to go to uni) would be to take a year out and apply once you have done the A levels?

  27. Wow, that's a horrifying development! I would NEVER have got to university if such a system had been in place back in the 70's. No calculations involved back then, simply a teacher's experience and reference.

    No wonder so many kids are doing gap years and waiting to apply to uni once they have their results.

    I wonder why colleges don't use the evidence of the coursework submitted during the A level and AS results?

    Mrs Anon

  28. Link

    It looks like kids have had to concern themselves about their GCSE results with regards to university application for at least 18 months.

    The girl from Australia really hit a chord with me, since we are also going to have to juggle two systems.

    This bit was an eye opener...

    "There are universities with filter systems to get rid of candidates with lower GCSE grades. It's simply because there are so many people applying for the most popular courses that it would take far too long for the universities to go through all the applications manually."

    That's rather clinical to say the least.

  29. Simon-

    Why the big push to have kids straight out of school and into university?

    My husband was a victim of the Australian education system, in that a bright boy was failed a good education. He got below average marks in the HSC (NSW equivalent A levels) and did not go to University until into his mid 20's. He did various things before that time, none of them at all academic in nature, usually more entrepreneurial and self-driven.

    When he did get into university he was terribly committed. We had 2 children and soon another on the way. He graduated with great marks. And his old High School even had the audacity to pin his photos from a local paper up in their staff room like some badge of honor!

    When he got out of university he went on to work for PWC. He was promoted far more speedily than his 21 year old peers he graduated with because he had a wealth of knowledge and experience that became evident in the tasks he was given.

    Within the first year he was promoted 3 times. He now works for himself and does really well in his chosen field.

    It frustrates me when we limit our children to having to determine their futures at age 18 and expect that they should have all the tools firmly under their belt by that time.

    So some kids won't have GCSE's and some will wait until they are 21+ to even have an inkling on what they want to do in life.

    To suggest that there is only one set of tools is naive. All our experiences in life shape who we are and what we become, and not all of them need to be academic in nature nor do they need to be sorted by the age of 18.

    There is a little fear mongering in some of your post.

    I am all for heightening awareness and educating the Home Education community, but let us not forget that many great people didn't do things in conventional ways.

  30. I agree completely! I am talking about the ways things are, not the way I should wish them to be.