Sunday, 29 August 2010

Non-standard UK qualifications

Last week I was accused of being fixated on GCSEs and A levels and not acknowledging that there were other, equally useful qualifications to be had by the home educated child. This is a very fair point and so I thought it might be worth looking a little at the alternatives to the standard qualifications in this country and seeing if any of them might be preferable for those being educated at home.

The first point to consider is this. The higher education system and also most employers are geared to the GCSE and A level. This may be regrettable, but it is indisputably true. Further Education colleges ask for five GCSEs if a teenager wishes to study for A levels, universities require A levels to study for a degree, training courses for plumbers ask for four GCSEs, even a shopkeeper or garage owner may well insist on GCSEs in English and mathematics. This means that anybody hoping that alternative qualifications will do the trick for their children is immediately putting those children into the position of being guinea pigs for a risky venture. It is not only home educating parents who do this. Schools and colleges are also conducting experiments of this kind with the International Baccalaureate and the New Diploma. Here is an analogy. Hikers usually ascend mountains wearing stout boots and thick socks. Imagine that somebody insists on trying to climb up while barefoot or wearing only flip-flops. It might be possible, but for every person who succeeds, there will be many who cannot manage it. This is what it is like for those who want their children to take non-standard qualifications. A few may do well, but it is hard to see the motive for avoiding the conventional path in the first place, except through sheer perversity!

Let us look at the alternatives to GCSEs and A levels, not just from the perspective of home educators, but also schools and colleges. One famous alternative to A levels is the International Baccalaureate. Some schools have adopted this in recent years because the standards are set quite independently of any government and are far more rigorous than A levels. There are two problems with the IB. Yesterday I mentioned the London Borough of Enfield, a local authority with which I have had quite a few dealings. One of the schools there, Highlands, decided a few years ago to be pioneers and scrap A levels entirely in favour of the International Baccalaureate. Big mistake. Because unlike A levels, it is perfectly possible to fail the IB entirely. In 2008, the sixth formers leaving Highlands found this to their cost. Almost half of them, 46% in fact, failed the IB. This meant that they had nothing at all to show for their two years further education. I cannot tell you how furious the parents were! Highlands dropped the IB and went back to A levels. Other schools found the same thing. Another problem with the IB is that universities are, as I said above, geared to GCSEs and A levels. They will accept the IB, but most are not as happy with it as they are with A levels, despite what they say on their websites.

A similar experiment has been carried out with the new Diploma. One local FE college decided to encourage many of those who wished to study for A levels to do instead a diploma, claiming that it would be worth three or four A levels and that universities would accept it as well as A levels. This is quite untrue and those foolish enough to be used as guinea pigs for this scheme are now finding that they are going to have great difficulties with getting into the universities of their choice.

Some parents have got their children to sit the National Tests in Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALAN). In theory, Level 2 is equivalent to GCSEs in English language and mathematics, grades A*-C. This may in theory be so, but you will have trouble persuading a college to accept these as being equal to GCSEs if you are trying to access an A level course. A serious difficulty with these qualifications is that they look the sort of thing which an illiterate person might have taken after going to remedial classes. This is not always the impression which one hopes to give to a prospective employer. Combined with a blank space in the box for secondary school, the whole tone of an application form for a job might be seriously jeopardised by such a qualification.

We recently saw a teenager from Wiltshire get into Exeter University on the strength of Open University credits alone, without any GCSEs or A levels. This has been done before, although it is not common. Once again, we come up against the problem of a system which is geared to GCSEs and A levels, together with certain recognised foreign qualifications. One has to ask one's self, what is the advantage here for the child? Gaining 190 points at the OU is very hard work, but if you are going to embark on such structured academic work, why choose a scheme so radically different from that with which universities are familiar? It is in any case unlikely that this is, or will become, a common way of entering university.

I can see, although do not think it wise, that some parents wish to allow their children to make free choices about the type and degree of education which they have. For those who are going to embark upon structured study though, it is the responsibility of the parents to research the options carefully and consider all the implications. What I find utterly baffling is that any family would deliberately set out to obtain qualifications which would make it harder for their children to get jobs or university places than would be the case if they stuck to the same things as everybody else, i.e. GCSEs and A levels. The only possibility that I can see is that these are people who like to do things the hard way, who enjoy a struggle. That is a perfectly good decision for an adult to make about her own life. After all, if I wish to make things difficult for myself, that is my affair. I could start walking everywhere backwards if I liked or with my eyes closed. However, the case is altered somewhat when the future life of a child is concerned. In such a case, to set out upon a course of action which will make it harder for the child to get on in life than is the case for a schooled child, seems to me foolish and irresponsible. I was disgusted with Highlands school when they gambled with the future of their sixth form pupils and I was horrified to see our local college trying to get loads of bright kids to sign up to the New Diploma. I feel exactly the same way about parents who ignore the evidence and pursue an unconventional route for their teenage children. Why would you take such a gamble?


  1. I can see what some home educators take the OU route rather than GCSES etc; first of all, because of the way funding works, they are free (it is the childs income that counts, not the parents) which is a huge bonus for some families - you yourself have commented on the high exam fess that external candidates are often charged for exams. So for the girl who has just got into uni via that route, she has saved her family the cost of 8 GCSE exam fees and 3 or 4 A levels. Secondly the actual materials from the OU are excellent for home tuition- in contrast to the average school textbook which may be full of things which are impractical to do in a home situation. This is particularly relevant where a parent may have bought some sort of correspondence courses for GCSES- some of them are awful, and the tuition back up is also patchy. In contrast I have never heard anything but good comments about the standard of materials that the OU provide - and the tutorial support. When you were educating your daughter you obvioulsl felt able to do this without external support, but many parents do not feel the same, so buy in some cost of external correspondence courses; with the notable exception of the English IGCSE course offered by a home educating mother, I have read many, many disatisfied customers of all the main "correpsondence" outfits. Not a single criticism of OU material though - it may be designed for adults, but it is high quality material which guides the student through the course well.

  2. The question of cost is a good one, Julie. Mind you, with independent schools trying to demonstrate 'public benefit', this seems to be dropping now. I paid getting on for £150 for each examination, but they can apparently be taken now for about a third of that. As for distance providers, somebody was in touch with me recently about that very subject and I shall be doing a post upon it soon.

  3. I think that another factor which makes OU attractive for some families is that they don't intend to send their children to college for A levels. You and I did, so taking GCSE/IGCSE was the obvious route to gain admittance - in fact most colleges are inflexible at that level. My daughter's college wouldn't even accept the 2 "GCSE equivalent" qualifications that she had gained in their own evening classes towards the "5 GCSEs" needed to get in for A levels. If you are not doing college though, OU points are more likely to be useful in getting into unis who do have experience of taking candidates via that route.

    IB is interesting - the "best" local college is stopping it this year as although there have been no problems with achievement or uni entrance, they have found it just too expensive to run. Of course there has been lots of publicity about the Cambridge Pre-U too, due to the complaints of a well known ex-footballer's son who didn't do well enough to get into uni via that route. Inspection of the results at the son's nearby public school shows that in fact, the results with pre U and last years A levels were identical - 66% got A's or the pre U "distinction" - so it is difficult to blame the school!

  4. I imagine people might choose OU courses over GCSEs and A levels because they are more interesting to them. If you are treating your study as something to be done for its own sake - rather than just as hoops to jump through to get the holy grail of university - then that might well be your primary consideration. But, or course, this is yet another post where Simon wonders why on earth anyone would choose to make choices which are not identitical to those he makes...

  5. IB was one of the reasons why we crossed an international school off the options (commute and fees would have crossed them off anyway to be honest).

    GCSEs and A levels have been around long enough for the snail’s pace Italian bureaucracy to have included them on the "international equivalents" list. Not so sure about the IB.

    Also when I tried to get more information about the exact details of the programme (which they run from primary school, as in there is a programme they run from teeny tinies onward that leads to high school education aimed at the IB) I could find bugger all unless I was prepared to pay to see the details of the curriculum.

    And it wasn't like a fiver or anything that they were after.

    I'm very interested in any information anybody has about distance learning courses for GCSEs and A levels. I'm already fairly disappointed that they don't seem to go out of their way to make it easy for you to access exam centres (frankly for what they are charging I would have expected support at the exam entry stage) and it doesn't get the kind of underlining that it should on their website. Somebody in the throes of enthusiasm could very not notice the additional expense and hassle of actually taking the exam.

    There is a real gap in the market for anybody who wants to offer a "from starting to prepare right through to walking out of the exam room with their fingers crossed" package. the fact that nobody does makes me think it must be a real pain in the bum, otherwise it would be included as standard.

    It is daunting, the idea of trying to sort out exam centres off your own bat from the wrong side of the alps. Cos they don't exactly fall over themselves to give you a clear picture/step by step guide of who to talk to, or how you go about it and what kind of pitfalls to watch out for.

  6. Allie - you have a valid point about Simon not understanding others choices; but some of the other thigns he mentions (eg the validity of ALAN courses ) is certainly true; sometimes home educators latch onto these alternative type things and find that they are then denied entry to what their child wants to do. I mentioned my daughters 2 qualifications above , but it didn't matter to her; (she had enough GCSES) but another college here wouldn't accept higher dance or drama qualifications (that are considered GCSE equivalent) for a student who wanted to do dance and drama amongst her A levels- she then had to enter (late at extra expense) and study for an IGCSE in a new subject
    6 weeks before the exams in order to gain the vital 5th IGCSE before they would admit her - absolutely no flexibility even though she clearly was a good student (she got an A in 6 weeks)

  7. Sarah- my understanding ( mostly from far flung missionary friends) is that the Britsh Council in most countries have some sort of exam centre link for Cambridge IGCSES. So it may be worth emailing the CIE board -

    to ask about centres in Italy - certainly a few years ago when CIE were being "peculiar" about letting candidates actually in the UK take their exams, folk were told they could travel out to Dublin, Nice and I think Rome to take them... so it is worth a shot!

  8. and PS to Sarah.... we have several candidates who are coming from Farnce to take IGCSES at our local centre -- in Portsmouth - which is handy for those who can nip across on the ferry; it is a pity someone put the rest of Europe in the way for you!

  9. "If you are treating your study as something to be done for its own sake - rather than just as hoops to jump through to get the holy grail of university"

    I can understand this perfectly, Allie. I often learn about things for their own sake and so does my daughter. If that is your motivation though, you hardly need either the Open University or A levels. You simply need to visit your local lending library. If you are studying purely for its own sake, then I cannot see why you would want a certificate from either the OU or anybody else?

  10. The Milan base was having all its non cash cow (EFL) facilities stripped 10 years ago which might explain why their website is playing the Dante’s post modern ring of hell (of circular web links leading nowhere) on me when I tried to check out non EFL exams there. I will pop in to check it out, once I can get the bile to stop rising in my throat at the thought of walking back in there. That place was the last time I ever worked for an employer rather than be my own boss. For good reason.

    To be honest it is cheaper and easier for me to fly to the UK than Rome, cos I can stay with my sister and not pay for accommodation. And it is nearer. This is one long country LOL.
    Is there an HE EU exam group\list ? That would be so cool !

    I know I have a while to go before I really need to worry about pinning things down, but I hate having a void of detailed information. It makes me jumpy. Even if things change in the future I'm happier with a frame of reference to compare the alterations to.

    I get my knickers in a twist convinced I am going forward with a plan, not having noticed a quagmire up ahead in the distance. I want to be hoarding wood to make a bridge well in advance. Just in case I need it.

  11. "You simply need to visit your local lending library. If you are studying purely for its own sake, then I cannot see why you would want a certificate from either the OU or anybody else?"

    Because the course materials are so good, are more likely to be up to date and accurate than our libraries books, the materials are interactive and this along with the ongoing assessments and exams help you learn and understand the material thoroughly. If you are on a low enough income (quite high thresholds) the course is free and you will also receive study grants (not loans) to buy extra materials, help with the cost of buying a computer (a friend was provided with a laptop for free) and help with internet access costs.

  12. "our libraries books"

    or even, 'our library's books'

  13. "They will accept the IB, but most are not as happy with it as they are with A levels, despite what they say on their websites."

    Do you have any evidence for this and the lack of acceptability to universities for the other qualifications you mention (not anecdotal evidence) by universities?

  14. Interesting report on the acceptance (or not) of vocational qualifications. It sounds as though acceptance rates for BTEC type courses are improving.

    Since the original research was carried out several highly selective health-related courses have started advertising that they accept applications from those with BTEC Nationals. These include two veterinary science/medicine courses that have now accepted several BTEC National students onto their foundation programmes and in one case accepted some straight onto the main 5-year programme. Four medical schools accept BTEC National students onto their main 5-year programme. Several more accept them onto their 6-year programme (with a foundation year).

  15. Hmm, my orginal post got eaten - but here is a summary. I have experience with 2 of my children - one got into an HND course 3 years ago (computing) via this route and the other is half way through a BTEC level 3 now. the whole thing is full of pitfalls- son got an immediate rejection from his first choice - when I spoke to them I was told they had never taken anyone without A levels, despite listing this very diploma under their acceptable qualifications. Very furstrating but his 2nd choice took him.

    My second daughter is currently half was through a BTEC diploma at level 3, in child care/early years. She was interested in either teaching or social work, so we researched carefully. She can get into to some unis; many won't accept it, or will accept any equivalent diploma except for the early years one. The newer universities (eg Solent, an ex poly) were more flexible than the traditional ones. It is however a very inconsistent situation; in her case she hates the course anyway, so the uni issue is the least of our concerns.

  16. @ Sarah in deepest darkest-

    you wrote-

    I am currently looking into interactive online resources- there are a few companies offering up thru GCSE and A level.
    Some are aimed at the alternate provision market for Local Authorities who have a duty to excluded kids or those with illnesses that prevent them form attending schools.
    However there are 4 that seem to cater for 'independent' candidates...i.e. Home Educators.

    Brite School, First College,Interhigh and Academus all offer differing price structures and flexibility of choice.

    I am particularly interested in Academus due to flexibility and price. They are offering the first 100 people who enrol a reduced cost of £1500 annual (£30 a week)and that may be extended for these same people . They also offer flexibility so you can choose just 3 or 4 subjects (more than this and it becomes more cost effective to pay the full £1500). The standards seem high both academically and in terms of wanting parental involvement and democracy and also I have chatted with the person running it and he is an ex home educator and I liked him (always a plus!).

    I have asked about these interactive resources on a few lists and not got much back by way of replies. I know its not for everyone but thought maybe you would be interested.
    blessings Tania

  17. Tania, you left out

    which I think is the longest running....

    I know the folk concerned but also know that friends have had mixed experiences; but I am pretty sure that is the same with the other providers (especially First College!!!). The biggest disadvantge to me of any of the ones who work in realtime is the need to be "logged in" each morning - the main joy of HE for me is to be able to drop it and run if an interesting diversion comes along!

  18. @ julie...I missed Northstar oops. Thanks for that.
    I just looked it up. They are flexible but more expensive than Academus.I also noticed that they seem to have a high percentage of teachers who identify as being Christian. Not that there is any issue with that at all...I just wondered if it has a more Christian flavour?
    And you are right of course- a 9.30 am start 5 mornings a week for poor DD (I naturally will still be in bed!) but she can do it in her PJs and eat her breakfast at the same time I suspect! LOL

    BTW she has pretty much chosen to go to sleep at about 11pm since she was 6 and she wakes at about 9am so it should not be an issue- and we never seem to get anywhere anyway before lunchtime...must be all that lying around till noon that I do- lazy, sloppy thinking and touchy-feely lifestyle that I choose!
    Strange though to be going this route after years of autonomous education...ah for horses and all that! blessings Tania

  19. I nearly forgot- I feel we can still just 'drop it and run'- they do not take attendance or anything...and you can catch up later as it is all stored online although admittedly DD would not be taking part live and interactive. I still foresee day trips and holidays happening when it suits us. She goes to the USA twice a year usually during a typical 'term' time and can do it there. too.

  20. Tania,

    Yes it is a Christian organisation - and has most of its customers overseas with ex pat familes. They don't discriminate against anyone however, and I have known all sorts of families use them. They mostly offer Cambridge IGCSEs which are of course secular.

    We have had a few families in our group who use/have used Interhigh, and although they have been very impressed with the standard of the teaching, they have always opted out of all morning activities to remain at their "desks" for the sessions; I don't know whether Interhigh stores stuff too, or whether they felt they couldn't cope without the interactive explanations of the lessons so needed to be there!

  21. "Strange though to be going this route after years of autonomous education...ah for horses and all that!"

    It's still autonomous if your daughter is choosing to follow the course. You've only left AE behind if she has no choice in the issue!

  22. "but thought maybe you would be interested.
    blessings Tania "

    I am, very ( =

    You and Julie, stars the pair of you are!

    Thank you, I'm updating delicious and off to have a nice roll in potential solutions.

  23. just a quick question if anybody knows, some the sites mentioned talk about "year 6,7,8 etc.", our kids start a year later (at 6 yo), so my just turned ten year year six in the UK even though he is year five here ?

    Or ..maybe not, because you have reception, so he could still be year five.

  24. Interhigh does 'store' lessons so if you miss them you can catch do Academus. Not sure about the others.I learnt about this interactive option thru people who are doing Interhigh and they love love love it....but Academus is less money and you can choose any amount of subjects so it sounds more 'autonomous' to me and my DD

    Sarah it depends when his birthday is for school here but if it he turned 10 before September 1st ,which I think he did then he would be going into year 6 here. The interactive places go by ability and maturity . I have a friend whose DD turned 10 in July and she is considering starting her in the interactive year 7 class instead of primary year 6 - she has been HE for a few years now and is ahead academically and mixes well with older kids.

  25. yes, clarifying - he is year 5 now - because the new academic year doesn't start until Sept 1st - when he would be year 6....So year 5 until Wednesday...

  26. Right ok, about to enter year six UK (one of the youngest in the year ?), but entering year five Italy.

    Good to hear that they base access to the courses more on ability/maturity than age, he would find Spanish a walk in the park even now so that could be an option to get his feet wet in the format even this year, but I reckon it will be another year at least before he is really working at his "year group" level in English.

    He has only had one year of English (unless you wish to count the EFL stuff they did at school LOL). I mean yes, he speaks it, but writing has been a whole nother ball game.

    I really like the look of Academus, but noticed this bit on Interhigh " and is working towards full accreditation." and got totally over excited wondering if they did get it...would that be enough to get the state off my back with the Italian national curriculum and the annual tests....because if it did then I absolutely wouldn't have to move back to the UK when he is 14, or find some dodgy solution involving "I am so commuting between Trentino and Lombardia, yes sir, Mr. Policeman sir, this is absolutely not a false registration of residency for naughty purposes, perish the thought..."

    Going to do a post on the online schools mentioned cos even for the people who don't want to HE the prospects of keeping their children’s hand in at "peer level" in English might be really appealing.

    Tania, tried to email you but is giving me the run around and timing out every time I try to mail somebody tonight. Have noted that you too are not a morning person and will bear in mind the time difference LOL

    I am having a very good day. Feel most cheerful. May not have to do international move with 2 whinging males (who gratuitously insult the skies and food of the motherland) and a zoo ( =

  27. Alternative qualifications that have been accepted by Oxford University.

    Most conditional offers for places at Oxford University are for AAA at A-level, or 38-40 points in the International Baccalaureate, with 6s and 7s in the higher level subjects. However, we have also made conditional offers on the following vocational and other qualifications. (Please note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of acceptable qualifications and nor does it indicate that these courses are in any way preferred. They are simply examples of qualifications that have been taken by some successful applicants in the past few years.)

  28. Interesting; I notice that none of them though were for pure sciences, maths, modern languages, classics, medicine. I think that alternative qualifications and an excellent interview may reveal some really inspiring students for arts subjects; but proven knowledge is a pre-requisite for sciences etc

  29. Approximately 18% of university entrants have vocational qualifications. It would not be surprising if they were for the less academic subjects. After all, if someone were academically minded they are likely to have taken GCSEs and A levels.

  30. Well I wasn't claiming that history at Oxford was less academic than maths - just different. I was thinking more about what pre-requisites you need to study some subjects at a higher level. For example, you wouldn't be able to study maths without equivalent qualifications in maths.....

  31. "I notice that none of them though were for pure sciences, maths, modern languages, classics, medicine."

    Modern languages get a mention along with law which I'd guess is quite academic. They don't actually state what subjects were studied at degree level. The one requiring the Maths A level alongside the access course might have been for a pure science or maths course.

  32. "I was thinking more about what pre-requisites you need to study some subjects at a higher level."

    Well hopefully, if you are interested in biology for instance, you would have studied and taken alternative qualifications in biology.

  33. Actually I think you will find that the degree to be studied is the bit in brackets (the only possible explanation for all that PPP, being Oxford).. the person who did take maths A level went on to study PPP too.

  34. Someone said "Well hopefully, if you are interested in biology for instance, you would have studied and taken alternative qualifications in biology."

    Well I would hope so too, but reading that list it would seem to indicate that Oxford don't find alternative science qualifications good preparation for their science degrees!

  35. "Well I would hope so too, but reading that list it would seem to indicate that Oxford don't find alternative science qualifications good preparation for their science degrees!"

    Bear in mind that this is a list of alternative vocational, professional and other qualifications. Alternative academic qualifications, such as the International Baccalaureate, are not covered by this list. This quote is from the first page in that section:

    When reviewing applications, tutors look for evidence of each candidate's academic strengths and their ability to thrive throughout an Oxford course. Academic qualifications such as A-Levels, the International Baccalaureate or any other academic equivalent are therefore strongly recommended as the best preparation for any course of study at Oxford.

  36. @Sarah-
    ODLQC is the body that Interhigh are getting full accreditation from. It is mainly for courses that are adult orientated and do not focus on 11-19 mainstream qualifications as the particular examining board will either acept or decline entry.

    I have no idea why Interhigh would focus on this for children doing academic subjects for preparation for FE/Higher education.

    However I see though that Little Arthur and WES ( both correspondence courses not virtual online )have become accredited through them and they offer up to GCSE/A level.

    The brochure for Academus explains all the requirements for running a course that leads up to GCSE and A level and it looks as though its just the examining body that has to approve.

    I am checking into all this and will post back here when I know more answers.

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