Wednesday, 2 June 2010

GCSEs and university

Over on the HE-UK list, somebody is asking for information about young people who have got to university without the tiresome chore of taking GCSEs and A levels. This is of course part of the mythology of home education; that it is possible to get into university without bothering about formal qualifications. Let's look at the facts.

A number of universities now boast that they are open to non standard qualifications when considering candidates. They do this partly to make it look as though they are 'widening access', to use the modern jargon and also to attract foreign students who pay more. This usually means that they will accept the International Baccalaureate, not a handful of Open University credits. Dundee University advertised an access course last year which guarantees a place at this prestigious university. When I rang them up to enquire about this, the woman to whom I spoke laughed at the idea that a teenager without any GCSEs could use this course to get into Dundee; it was specifically designed with mature students in mind, older people who may have got Bs at A level rather than As.

It is true that a few people have managed to get on to courses at universities to study non-academic subjects, but if you are aiming for a decent university and a conventional academic subject, then without A levels you will experience great difficulty in even getting as far as an interview. Chris Ford in Manchester is often cited as an example of what can be achieved. It is sometimes forgotten that he actually had to go to college at fourteen in order to take GCSEs and A levels in order to get to university. Alex Dowty is also well known for having got into Oxford to study law without any GCSEs at all. How did he manage this? He had some OU credits, but the clincher was that he had spent years working part-time in a solicitor's office. Readers will be scratching their head at this point and asking themselves, 'How did he get a job at a solicitor's without any GCSEs?' The answer is of course that his father is a well known lawyer. Unless your father is actually a well known lawyer, this particular route is closed to you. Alex Dowty of course spent four years at school, learning the basics.

The truth is that good universities want not only three A levels at A or B, they also want to see a string of GCSEs as well. Places like Oxford and Cambridge expect at least six GCSEs at A*. Without them, you don't really stand a chance. Even getting into college to study for academic A levels is all but impossible these days without GCSEs. I know of no FE college which will allow students to study A level mathematics without their already having a GCSE in the subject. It is often claimed that it is possible to get into college or university on the strength of an audition or portfolio of work. For things like Performing Arts, Photography or Textile Design, this might just prove possible. You will not be able to do it for more academic subjects like engineering, medicine or law though.

The decision by parents not to enter their children for GCSEs casts a very long shadow indeed. From a purely legal point of view, it is interesting to speculate whether or not the decision of parents not to bother with GCSEs or other formal examinations might not go against one of the established cases of precedent in this field, that of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School, 1985. As will be recalled the judgement in this case held that a suitable education was one that:

Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a
member, rather than the way of life of the country as a whole, as long
as it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some
other form of life if he wishes to do so.
(Woolf 1985)

It could well be argued that by not allowing their children to take GCSEs, parents are indeed foreclosing their children's options in later years. It is an interesting point legally. In the meantime, parents who really hope that their children will later be able to go to university if they wish, such as the mother who posted on the HE-UK list, should start teaching their kids to a curriculum which will enable them to sit GCSEs at fifteen or sixteen. Realistically, this is the only way that most young people are going to be able to get into college or university.

It is also interesting, looking at the matter from the point of view of a child's autonomy; that by deciding not to prepare their children for GCSEs and then enter them for the examinations, parents are actually choosing the future course of their children's lives. Without those GCSE's, the child will not be able to consider becoming a scientist, doctor, vet, architect, engineer or mathematician. Instead, she will be limited to art, design, music, carpentry or various other careers which don't need good GCSE's or A levels. Those parents are thus deciding the future course of their children's lives for them, long before the children themselves are able to understand the consequences of not sitting formal examinations.


  1. I read the converation on this topic yesterday with interest; and I too was staggered that actually not one of the posters answered the question asked - abut getting into uni WITHOUT qualifications. EVERY single example had got in
    either with going to college and getting GCSEs and A levels - or by some other accredited route - 1 via an access course and the others by a Christian qualification (which is recognised by UCAS and appears as such on the list of international equiavalents) There wasn't any evidnce that any uni had taken folk without a quaification. I know some folk do get in on OU points (but they still need the right number of points) fact Alex Dowty is the only named case of no apparent quals.... and even then it isn't clear exactly how many points from OU he had - the stuff I can find says "courses from OU in humanities and politics " so he may have had he standard 90 points anyway.

    This is one of the topics which does make me a bit irritated to be honest (and on which I do agree with you entirely!) I don't care whether families choose to do GCSES etc or not - it is their decision - but I do object to misinformation which enourages some families to take a certain route based on that misinformation. The other related topic is "you can do GCSEs when you get to college at 16" which is equally unlikely in many parts of the country!

    I know HE young people who have fallen foul on both fronts - trying to get desired quaifications at 16 and trying to get into uni with unrecognised qualifications. In some cases the families concerned may have had no alternative; but in many cases the right info early enough may have helped them to make decisions which were better for them in the long run.

  2. Mind you, the person who posted this question is now completely satisfied. She has now posted again, thanking everybody and saying that her mind has been set at rest! Some people are very easily reassured.

  3. you can take GCSE at any age not just at 16!

  4. Peter (I assume) said "you can take GCSE at any age not just at 16!"

    er yes, but you cannot assume that you will be able to do them at college at 16+ since most colleges no longer run GCSEs courses at all (or only maths and English resits.)

    I am not campaigning for everyone to do exams - just to be better informed about what the options actually are in their area!

  5. In fact I have just looked up the options at your local college, Peter - there are 3 GCSES on offer - maths, English and health/physiology. All state that they are resit courses for people who got a D last time (or in case of health a D in science) Now one hopes they may be flexible for home educated children - but they may not and anyway 3 GCSES isn't exactly any choice, is it?

  6. Peter said "what do you mean better informed? those nasty parents not telling they children about GCSE?"

    no, it is the old chestnuts that do the rounds on the HE lists etc that I am concerned about. - some are out of date.

  7. I enquired at all 3 of my local colleges about my daughter enrolling at 6th form to do GCSEs for the first time. I informed them that she was home educated. I was categorically told that the only way she could take GCSEs there was if she had previously failed, or got poor grades. They are resit courses, not full courses. Therefore she will be taking 6 or 7 IGCSEs next year, before going to college to sit A Levels. Whatever your home educating style, why would you choose to deliberately restrict your child's choices at 16+?

  8. I don't see this as a choice between the parent choosing that the child will take GCSEs and the parent choosing the child will not take GCSEs. In our autonomously home educating family, we discuss these matters and our children are clear that the choices will affect their later lives. In much the same way, my own mother discussed my O level choices with me, by the way. I don't think that at 12 or 13 people are incapable of understanding that certain choices open certain doors. That said, some children will have particular needs that affect this sort of decision making.

    My aim has always been to ensure that my children have plenty of information - without it, choices are not real choices. But all choices have consequences. Keeping your 'options open' by taking eight or nine GCSEs has consequences for your day to day life as a teenager and may well close your eyes to other, non-academic paths in life. That's not necessarily a bad thing - just something else of which we should be aware.

    I don't think it's helpful to anyone to present this as a simple choice between a right path and wrong one.

  9. Yup, agree with that.

    Sad to have to put my child's education on hold in order to sit exams, but have been doing that, nonetheless, in order to keep all doors open in life.

    Once the exams are all finished next week, I suspect that he will pick up his education again for a few months before A Levels at college begin.

    He's already champing at the bit, planning what he wants to learn over the summer. LOL!

    Mrs Anon

  10. Allie, I wasn't presenting this as a choice between a right path and a wrong one. I'm sorry if I gave that impression. It's just that an awful lot of parents seem to think that it does not matter particularly about GCSEs and they assume that a portfolio of work will do the trick for the college or university. Deciding not to do GCSEs does have serious consequences for the child. I don't think that at the age of twelve, my daughter was capable fully of understanding the way that her options would be restricted without GCSEs. As her parent, it was my duty to make the decision on her behalf. Obviously, at this stage in her life if she did not wish to study for A levels, then that is up to her.

  11. So will GCSEs still exist in a few years? Or will they have morphed into something else? When people ask me about exams, that's the answer I give, because it is several years before we need to consider that (not having one of those exceptional children who gets sixteen GCSEs by the age of ten). It doesn't stop me pushing my LA to encourage them to provide exam support, because that's useful to all home educators that want it, but at the moment exams are not even on the radar for day-to-day education.

  12. Well, all children are different, I guess. Our 13 year old is perfectly able to understand the implications of decisions about qualifications and is in fact making decisions about them and learning from those decisions. I anticipate that this will be an ongoing process during the next few years as both our children go through their teens. I believe that those skills are at least as valuable as whatever qualifications they may choose to get.

  13. "I don't think that at the age of twelve, my daughter was capable fully of understanding the way that her options would be restricted without GCSEs."

    Were you aware of (and make her aware of) the restrictions that spending two years on GCSEs may have placed on her future? One of my children made the choice not to study GCSEs and is now a couple of years ahead of her peers in her chosen route. Other young people who spent two years on GCSEs and are now having to play catch up with my daughter. There is nothing to stop my daughter taking GCSEs (by correspondence, for instance) at a later date if she wants to change direction in much the same way as these other young people are are as a result of their change in direction.

    And why would she need to make the choice at 12? One of mine made the choice to take GCSEs at 15 and had 6 by the time they were 17. Bit of a late starter but they are only 'behind' a year.

  14. I mentioned the age of twelve because that was the age which a previous poster talked about. I can see many advantages to having a string of GCSEs and no disadvantages. Conversely, I can see no advantages in not having any GCSEs and many disadvantages. In other words, having acquired the GCSEs by the time she was fifteen, my daughter could then have chosen to become a carpenter or other career which did not require them. If however she had not got them, then she would have still been free to follow a non academic course, but prevented from studying A levels. Having the GCSEs gave her more options, which can only be a good thing. I could not possible have coached her through those examinations against her will; the whole process was by mutual consent. It could hardly have been otherwise. Imagine trying to force a teenager to study physics against her will. It does not bear thinking about!

  15. Simon, ringing an administrator in one university and as a result declaring it is impossible is very poor research.

    I DO know of other people who have got in without so-called qualifications. And I have spoken to several admissions people at Universities over the years who have all said that what is required is a demonstration of ability to self study and study at a certain level along with commitment to and interest in the subject. It's not easy to get in like this and often one has to have a rigorous interview and show a portfolio of work (which could, for example, include an in depth professionally kept lab book - better evidence of scientific understanding than any A level). Some even require sitting some kind of aptitude test. The requirement varies from university to university and from department to department. It usually requires some digging to find a person who can actually answer the question of what is *really* required too.

    A few years ago I had a very long conversation with someone from the English Department of one of the colleges at Cambridge (a lecturer with responsibility for admissions, not an administrator) who re-iterated this very thing.

    There are, however, some universities who will only accept A levels etc for certain departments.

    Even if one wishes to gain admittance to such a department/univerity it is not beyond the wit of many well rounded home educated young people to pick up an A level or 3 from college in a short space of time. One has not "ruined one's chances" because one hasn't taken a prescribed number of GCSEs and A levels at a prescribed age!

  16. Alison,

    Not stepping in here to defend Simon.... but the trouble is that we do hear reports of people who don't have any qualifications getting in to uni, but no one ever comes up and says who/what/where!
    All the people who I know about has alternative qualifications, not none at all; and on the other side I do know a couple of folk who did have alternative qualifications but who still had a lot of bother or didn't succeed to get on their chosen course.

    Now I am not advocating that anyone should be having to do anything ; I just want better info so choices made are informed.

  17. Alison, I mentioned Dundee because that was talked about on the lists as an exciting possibility for home educated teenagers. You seem to be saying that you know cases of young people who have gained places at universities to study academic subjects such as sciences without having either GCSEs or A levels. Can you tell us which universities these are? I am interested in this subject and would like to speak to the universities concerned.

  18. Quite a few universities pay lip service to 'widening access' and specifically state that they do not necessarily require students to have A levels. In practice, this is usually aimed at foreign students who might have different qualifications. Alison tells us that some universities are prepared to accept; 'a portfolio of work (which could, for example, include an in depth professionally kept lab book - better evidence of scientific understanding than any A level)' I am very keen to know which university is being referred to here. A university which apparently prefers a well kept lab book because it is better evidence of scientific understanding than an A level in Chemistry is really worth knowing about. In short, which university is this and how many students have they accepted in the last few years without any A levels or GCSEs?

  19. "Conversely, I can see no advantages in not having any GCSEs and many disadvantages."

    I just gave you one. My daughter is two years ahead of her peers in her chosen field because she did not spend two years studying for and taking GCSEs.

    "If however she had not got them, then she would have still been free to follow a non academic course, but prevented from studying A levels. Having the GCSEs gave her more options, which can only be a good thing."

    My daughter is in the same position. If your daughter wanted to study my daughter's field she would need two years to catch up, just as my daughter would need 2 years to catch up with yours if she wanted to study A levels instead (or maybe just 1 year if 4-5 GCSEs were sufficient).

  20. Studying and taking GCSEs is not a full time job! It can easily be fitted into an active life, especially if they are spread out over a few years. They certainly did not interfere with my daughter's life too much. What is your daughter's field and how much time did it take up each day? My daughter never spent more than a couple of hours each day studying.

  21. Peter - do you never actually read what I say? I said perfectly clearly that my issue wasn't whether a child did or didn't take exams; it was with the distribution of poor information as to whether this did or didn't matter!

  22. old simon deleting me post Juile i must be geting to him lol

    you want parent to tell child it does matter if she he does not take GCSE by 16 Julie?

  23. No, I want the parents to be fully informed about whether it matters or not; it all depends on what the ability of the child is like and whether they have definate aspirations for any particular future.

    For example, one of the HE girls I currently teach maths to wants to do medicine. Doubtless her mother could have decided that she might be able to get in as a mature student having done access courses/OU courses etc in the future, but given that medicine is very competitive even with excellent results and that the training is long already (so starting late has implications, especially for a woman who may want a career break to have children,) the mother decided that doing IGCSES etc was the way ahead. So this girl (who is a year 9 child) will do maths next week and more exams including additional maths next year to prepare for the future- a future the girl herself wants but her mother has researched.

    In contrast, another friend's daughter was always interested only in "arty" things and was aiming at a college course in photography. The girl was never very academic and many GCSES seemed to be out of her reach; plus they financial implications would have made taking exams difficult for the family. The mother researched a local college which took her on the desired course based on a portfolio and a maths/English test and all seem happy with the outcome. The daughter has no aspirations to further education, so as yet there have been no limitations caused by their choices.

    What worries me is families who are misled making decsions based on poor info. I know one girl who failed to get into her chosen uni course because although her "alternative " qualifications were apparently recognised she still didn't get an offer; presumably because there were better candidates with more conventional proof of their ability. A completely different scenario is the girl who wanted to do a vocational college course; she had no GCSES so entered on the foundation course locally only to find the very same girls who had once bullied her at school were on the same level course. Had she passed some exams she could have started a level higher and missed out on her "delightful" classmates.

  24. Well that all sounds very complicated to me Julie!

    is going to uni really so inportant maybe geting a job is better? go into the real world and work! old crazy Badman wanted every one to go to uni.Peter wants to join police force you dont have to go to uni to do that!

  25. Actually I agree with you on that one Peter - the sheer stupidity of making 50% of school leavers go to uni astounds me. But if a child wants to go to uni they should be able to, hence my above stuff about being prepared. And, yes, I think I would rather have a doctor who had the right qualifications.....

  26. tTats a first us agreeing Julie it wont last!

    not many people are to be doctors so ok to me for them to spend a lot of time cost a lot of tax payers money to send people to uni so only those that really want it should go from what ive seen some people use it to avoid real work!

    anther good job is LA worker how do you become one? do you have to go to uni to be one? i mite apply myself for one of those LA numbers!

    I think old Simon wants every one to go to college and uni like crazy Badman did he lots his job Julie did you know?

  27. Nottingham Trent and St Andrews and Oxford and Cambridge off the top of my head

  28. I should add that you have to speak to the right people which usually means tutors and professors NOT admin people and it truly is NOT an easy option because one has to demonstrate one's readiness to learn at this level.

    Basically the young person is proving the same ability just in a different way.

    A sort of halfway house entry seems to be had using some of those one year access courses universities first developed for mature students without qualifications. In fact back in the late eighties I met a great many mature students at my university with no GCSE's. They had demonstrated their abilities by either the access course or some other persuasive evidence. It is no different for the home educated young person.

    So, if I were looking for a uni to take a EHE young person without qualifications I would probably take a good look at ones that have flexible entry for mature students.

  29. "Alex Dowty of course spent four years at school, learning the basics."
    It was a Steiner school, actually. And we know what you think of those.

  30. I've just had a look "over on the HE-UK list" and there are several examples of young people who have gone to university with very few GCSE's or even A levels. One for example, with only three GCSE's, is doing a PHD in chemistry. A couple with no GCSE's or A levels at all have BAs, although in subjects that you probably wouldn't consider academic enough. Several others are doing degrees in subjects that even you couldn't find fault with, and have only about 4 GCSE's each. Why don't you ask the people who provided this information to tell you which universities their offspring went to (Oxbridge was mentioned) so that you can contact them yourself and verify the information?

  31. I was asking about children who have no GCSEs. The cases you mention have taken GCSEs precisely because they were needed in order to get on to the courses which they wanted. That was my point.

  32. But not the 'required' number, which suggests that universities are flexible. If they accept less than 5 GCSE plus 3 A levels they are likely to accept alternative qualifications, especially if they are at a higher level (OU for example), or relevant work experience. I think it's more usual to suggest alternatives to GCSE rather than no qualifications at all, at least for academic subjects (I know plenty of children who have gained college or university places on arts courses without formal qualifications).

  33. "The cases you mention have taken GCSEs precisely because they were needed in order to get on to the courses which they wanted."
    The poster was very clear that the students I referred to have _no_ GCSE's or A levels at all.