Sunday, 31 January 2010

More about education

There seems to be some sort of impression that my view of education is limited to acquiring formal qualifications such as GCSEs. This is not at all true. I see education for children as something which prepares them for a satisfying life and opens as many opportunities as possible for them in their adult life. Being happy, having emotional stability and strong family relationships are part of this education. Inculcating a love of learning is also very important. This can be done by example and by what Roland Meighan describes as "purposive conversation." All this is quite true and formed an integral part of my own daughter's education. Another strand of this education inevitably involved studying for GCSEs.

Some of those who have left comments on my previous posts seem to imagine that I am obsessed with higher education or with children needing GCSEs to get jobs. It is a little more complicated than that. I was actually obsessed with making sure that my daughter had as many options as possible and that she did not restrict her life chances too early on in her life. For instance, she was very keen on ballet and music as a child. For a while, it looked as if that was the direction her life would take. This would have been absolutely fine with me, but I still wanted to keep open her options. For this reason, we studied a variety of academic subjects in addition to music and dance. At some point, she decided that she would prefer to focus upon creative writing and English; an interest which she still maintains. This did not mean dropping music or mathematics. We continued studying a wide range of subjects. This is just as well, because later on, she discovered that the universities which interested her were always impressed with A level Mathematics.

The point that I am making is that neither of us could possibly have known which direction her interests would ultimately take. I was very surprised when she decided to take A level Mathematics. In the event, she decided to go to college to study for A levels in Mathematics, English Literature, History and Government and Politics. This would not have been possible had she not taken and passed at least some GCSEs. People talk casually of presenting a portfolio of work instead of taking GCSEs and that is fine; if one wishes to study Art, Photography, Textile Design or Musical theatre. Try getting onto an A level course in Physics, Mathematics, History or Chemistry without GCSEs and you will be in for a shock. In other words, had I not encouraged her to continue studying a range of subjects to GCSE, she would be unable to pursue the life she wishes now.

We can debate whether or not it should be so, but those parents who don't arrange for their children to take GCSEs are actually making choices for their children, choices which will limit their opportunities in later life. A child of eleven may not much feel like studying physics to GCSE level, it is true. He may not plan to take A levels; my own daughter did not. But if at the age of sixteen he wishes to go to college and study for A levels, that early disinclination will come back to haunt him.

It is our job as parents to give our children the greatest possible range of options in their lives. Deciding not to enter them for GCSEs closes off a wide range of these options at an early age. many parents talk vaguely of their children being able to take GCSEs later if they wish. These are usually the parents who have not realised just how horribly restricted Further Education Colleges have become in recent years. It cannot be right for us as parents to close off avenues to our children in this way unless we have very sound reasons for doing so.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Thank you Marion, that was a very nice thing to read!

  3. The current government has made an active decision to front-load education via schools. It has been systematically reducing funding to FE colleges for years, significantly restricting the access of anyone older than school-age to courses leading to public examinations. This might make sense in the economic short-term, but it doesn't make sense in the long-term, nor educationally, because people are always finding, in their unpredictable lives, the sudden need for a GCSE in Italian, or that revising A level Chemistry would be useful. Having said that, as far as I am aware, over-16s can still take GCSEs at FE colleges without a problem.

    I can see why narrowing a child's *learning* might restrict their options later on, but not why not doing GCSEs should do this. Obviously, if one wants to do an A level course in Physics, Chemistry, Maths or History, one would be expected to have a certain level of prior knowledge in the relevant subject, and it would be unreasonable to expect the institution in question to select students on the basis of a viva, but there is no reason why someone wanting to study a particular range of A levels shouldn't take just the GCSEs required; they are simply indicators of knowledge in the subject, not the knowledge itself. As far as I am aware, GCSEs are pre-requisites for A level *courses*, not A level exams. And as far as I am aware, they are not essential pre-requisites for OU degree courses.

    The school system has to keep children's options open via GCSEs because that's the way the system works. Outside schools, people get jobs and learn what they need to learn in a wide range of ways. The education system has always been very self-referential, largely because many people working in it have never worked anywhere else and think the way it's done in education is the be-all and end-all.

  4. You would be very lucky to live near an FE college which did GCSEs, apart from re-sits. In order to take A levels, one must be able to authenticate coursework. This can be done, but is devilshly tricky. The only practical way for most is to go to college or sixth form if one wishes to take A levels. You will not get on the course without GCSEs. Many universities now are at least as interested in the GCSEs that a student has as they are in the A levels. I do not say that all this is good or desirable; I think it appalling. Never the less, this is how things are now.

    When my daughter was twelve, I researched FE colleges within a thirty mile radius of our home. Not one would be flexible about getting onto A level course without GCSEs. None offered GCSE course, either during the day or as evening classes.

  5. "Thank you Marion, that was a very nice thing to read!"

    It's called spam Simon, I'm afraid. cough

    For the record though (and I am a real human being not a spambot) I enjoy reading what you write here. Much of the time I disagree with what you say, but that's all the better - there's not much point only listening to views you agree with.

    I can't find anything at all to disagree with in today's post though. Maybe tomorrow.

  6. Yes, I did click on the link to "Marion". Still, courtesy costs nothing and I always like to respond to those commenting, even if they are robots!

  7. So how come parents on HE forums have reported getting their post-16 children onto GCSE courses at FE colleges. Could this not vary between LAs?

  8. I did wonder why "Marion" was called Lucy and used stilted English.

  9. It does indeed vary enormously between local authorities. The general trend though is for FE colleges to focus upon other things than GCSEs. For example, if one wanted to study French at our nearest three colleges, it could only be done by taking an OCN course. There is no provision for GCSEs. Mathematics and English are only offered as re-sits. I'm afraid that what has happend is that GCSEs are simply seen as something studied and taken at school. You are probably, like me, of an age to remember when it was perfectly possible for anybody to take GCEs as evening classess at the local technical college. Those days are gone.
    You will, if you are on the lists, have seen despairing parents who have only discovered this when their children are fifteen or sixteen.

  10. Yes Suzyg, it seems to vary very much from area to area, so it's very important to resarch early, though that's obviously not foolproof as much can change in a year! Our local FE college offers quite a wide range of GCSEs from scratch. They also offer revision courses for re-takes which I believe causes problems in other areas when people see them listed as available and thing they are suitable for beginners in the subject.

  11. Simon,

    I'm going through the FE college application/interview process now with my son (16) and am very glad that, by pure chance, we happened to have helped him through the exact IGCSE's he now needs to study the A Levels he wants to do. For eg he wants to do A Level Psychology. I had not been aware 2-3 years ago that two B's at Sciences and a C at Maths were necessary pre-requisites for this A Level. Luckily, though, he has the Sciences and should get the Maths.

    I didn't do the early research as well as I should have. I was, to some extent, living in the past, when it was possible to take all sorts of academic courses as an adult, when now it is not.

    All our local colleges have a course for re-sits in 5 GCSE's: English, Maths, Science and 2 others from a limited array of options. Mostly, it's former HE'ers taking those courses and mostly, at age 17 or 18 when they realise, rather late, that they need them as pre-requisites for their further education.

    Unfortunately, there is a knock-on effect of this. Full time education is only free until the year in which you are 19. So, if you delay getting the pre-requisite GCSE's done, that delays the A Levels and you could end up paying for the tuition for those! Which would be quite a hefty price to pay.

    What amazes me though is how uninformed many HE'ers are about the current FE situation. (And until recently, that included me!) Most people seem to be relying on the FE for their kids later on, but don't know that things are different now.

    The good thing about the changes though is that groups, of HE'ing families getting together, being tutored as a group towards all kinds of exam subjects, are now springing up all over the place, which is a really good development and gives more families more options. You don't have to do it all on your own any more. Out of the 8 IGCSE's my son did/is doing, 5 were done this way with good results for most kids.

    Mrs Anon

  12. >>>>You are probably, like me, of an age to remember when it was perfectly possible for anybody to take GCEs as evening classess at the local technical college. Those days are gone.<<<<

    Which is a huge problem, I think.

    My own father, having left school at 14 to help provide for his family, went back to 'night school' in his 30's and got O levels and A Levels and thus improved his own life-chances.

    How are people supposed to do such things now? It seems to make social mobility more difficult.

    Mrs Anon

  13. One of the things that has made finding colleges which offer GCSEs is the introduction of BTECS and NVQ courses, which (in the lower levels) are aimed at those who failed to get the 5 GCSEs or so needed for higher courses. That is abslutely fine if you are aiming for some kind of vocational qualiffiction- child care, sports sciences, catering, motor vehicle maintaince. It does of course mean an extra year or two (depending on whther the college will let you take the NVQ level 2- which mostly assumes 4 grade D ish GCSES) or insist on the level 1. The problem is if you need to do all 4 years to get to an A level equivalent (Level 1 and 2 are normally a year each, level 3 two years) you will run out of funding after 3 years and will have to pay for the 4th year fees. Secondly of course you actually have to want to do the subject offered - it is no use doing child care if you really wanted to do A levels. Since the govt has been funding these GCSEs are less aavailable and even adult ed provison is in real difficulty due to funding cut backs. I suspect as the govt plugs the new diplomas things will be come even trickier.
    Young people also do change their minds. My dd's closest home ed friend was always a bright girl who wanted to do marine biology. Ar 14 however the teenage years struck with a vengeance and she decided to opt for a child care diploma. This (even at level 3) has less stringent entry requirements than A levels and although she took and passed 6 GCSEs/IGCSE, the only science qualification was foundation level IGCSE double science (because she didn't need more). Four months into her course - she hates it.... has absolutely no desire to work with children ever and wants to swap to A levels, in biology etc. The college will allow her to if she finishes this academic year, and takes IGCSE biology (at home) this June and gets an A or B. Clearly it would have been simpler to have chosen the "more demanding" GCSEs in the first place....even if they hadn't proved neccessary. So she will end up with a wasted year (she can't have half a diploma, but can't stay and finish it or no funding for the 2nd year of A levels...)

  14. I agree with you entirely, I think it is a shocking state of affairs. My older daughter, who is now twenty one, had been toying with the idea of going to college and studying for A levels. She now discovers that this would cost her thousands of pounds which she does not have. Like you, I cannot see how these changes are actually helping anybody to get on in life.

  15. I would highly recommend OU level 1 course to her. They assume no previous knowledge and, unless she is on a high income, they are likely to be free.

  16. BTW, has anyone checked the availability of full GCSEs at sixth form colleges? My son is taking full GCSEs in Maths and English at a sixth form college and there is a 24 year old on the same course.

  17. "My older daughter, who is now twenty one, had been toying with the idea of going to college and studying for A levels. She now discovers that this would cost her thousands of pounds which she does not have."

    She may be OK if she studies full time and they are her first level 3 qualifications:

    Free tuition to help you get new qualifications

    If you don’t already have GCSEs, A levels or equivalent qualifications, you may be able to study for them without having to pay any tuition fees.

    You’ll be able to get free tuition:

    * for a course which leads to your first full Level 2 qualification
    * if you’re under 25, for a course which leads to your first full Level 3 qualification

    Getting a Level 2 qualification can help you develop skills suitable for a range of jobs - and a Level 3 qualification could get you into university or higher education.

    A full Level 2 is equivalent to five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, and a full Level 3 to two A levels. But you’re not limited to just GCSEs and A levels. You could, for example, choose to do an NVQ or BTEC qualification that fits in with your career plans.

  18. Anon said "has anyone checked the availability of full GCSEs at sixth form colleges? My son is taking full GCSEs in Maths and English at a sixth form college and there is a 24 year old on the same course."

    Not near here - one college( out of 5 in a 20 mile radius) does offer full a GCSE course - so you would have to go and do six, which would include maths and English and 4 of whatver is running that year (not always what you want to do - one of dd's friends opted for ICT and is doing Spanish instead because her choices weren't running) and all the nearer colleges to us only offer maths and English as adult ed classes - there are only resist classes for daytime students, not complete courses.

    Mad world....

  19. Do you mean the only adult classes they offer are maths and english or that adult classes are the only way to take maths and english?

  20. The latter ... college my dd is at allows students to do resits or to start from scratch at adult ed classes; there is also a limited range of other GCSEs available as adult ed classes (but not as normal college courses). This college calls "adult" over 16 and allows 16 -18 to do it free. Not too far away, adult means over 19. So as it is for over 19's, it isn't free either! ( -unless you can give up work and go full time to college and find a suitable course at level 2, which is unlikely to be GCSEs because they aren't running full time GCSE classes any more)

    The only thing I have learnt in the past few years is that there are variations, but don't assume the old advice "they can do GCSEs once they are 16" is generally valid - it is more often incorrect, especially if you can't travel to alternative provision if your nearer colleges won't help.

  21. For 19+, I wonder if you could find a smallish course at college and top up your hours to full time with evening GCSEs? Or even take enough evening GCSEs to count as full time? Doesn't 12 hours or more per week count as full time? My daughter took a full time level 2 BTEC last year and only had to go in for two and a half days per week, so maybe possible to work part time as well. I know there were self-supporting young students on the same course. You would also qualifiy for £30 a week adult learning grant during term time.

  22. >>>>>>For 19+, I wonder if you could find a smallish course at college and top up your hours to full time with evening GCSEs? Or even take enough evening GCSEs to count as full time?<<<<<

    Evening GCSE's? Where did you find them still on offer? If you have them, you are lucky.

    None of the three FE colleges within 45 min bus ride to us offer any except English and Maths. It's all flower arranging and feng shui classes in the evening.

    Mrs Anon

  23. They're not at FE colleges. The adult education department runs them in various schools around the county. I'm afraid I can't find a list of the courses they run because they are already running, but I know they had English, Maths, Science and Biology, not sure what else.

  24. I do know what you mean, Adult Education Classes, held in schools etc in the evening in most small towns and small viillages. I've scoured the brochures sent out by our county and the only GCSE's available are English and Maths.

    Mrs Anon

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