Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The weatherman and the rules

When I was little, my family used to go and stay with my grandmother at the seaside. She had one of those weather-houses, the kind made in the shape of an alpine chalet, where a little woman would come out if the weather was dry and a little man would come out if it was likely to wet. I remember once when we had a day out planned and the little man came out. I pushed him back in hope of discouraging the rain. My infant mind had of course confused cause and effect; I thought that the man was actually causing the bad weather, rather than merely foretelling it.

I think that I know now how that little man in the weather-house must have felt! I have in the past drawn attention to some of the unspoken rules which govern university admissions. I did so again yesterday, which irritated a few people. I can't really see why this should be; I don't make these rules and neither do I approve of them. I just think that it is important that everybody is aware of them. Those in independent schools already know them by and large. Ignorance of these rules harms the prospects of children at maintained schools or who are being educated at home and so I think it good to create a level playing field by telling everybody the hidden rules which one seldom hears teachers mention in state schools. Since almost half of all children will go to university, this is not an esoteric, minority interest, but something which it is vital to know about. It affects a lot of children. The stranglehold of the independent schools upon good universities is maintained by these rules and yet judging by some of the comments yesterday, a number of parents are happy for this to continue. I am not. I want all children from all backgrounds to know what they should do if they wish to go to a prestigious university.

I have mentioned before the importance of GCSEs in getting in to university. I am not going to go on about this again, except to say that I have been saying this for years and that this particular cat is really out of the bag now. So too is the importance of having a string of A* GCSEs if you wish to have as wide a range of choices as possible when applying for university. As was said in yesterday's Telegraph:

Martin Stephen, the High Master of St Paul’s School, west London, said that some universities rejected students who failed to get a string of elite A*s at GCSE.
“The A* is being used as a crude, preliminary filter which is hugely regrettable because it simply discriminates against the late developer,”

This too is not generally emphasised in maintained schools. The school gets no extra credit for kids who get A*s and so it is not a big thing. The league tables are concerned with A*-C, so the focus is more upon getting those predicted Ds into the C category. Most parents at maintained schools do not even realise that a clutch of A*s is necessary if you wish to take your pick of universities. Those at independent schools usually do know this.

The lack of knowledge about the importance of GCSEs and the vital role of the A* is one way that children who do not attend independent schools are decanted into poorer universities or end up doing vocational course instead. There are other cunning methods and these kick in during A levels. My daughter's college announced last week that the percentage of students getting As at A level had tripled in one year! This reminds me of the sort of speech that one heard in the Soviet Union when they were announcing a bumper harvest or the hug number of tractors being made or something. You just know that there is more to it than meets the eye. Still, three times the number of As at A levels. Surely this means teaching which is three times as good, or students working three times as hard, or both? Actually, it means three times as many students being pushed to take up useless A levels like photography and media studies. Photography is a boom subject in many maintained schools. Friends of ours have children who are being urged to take this at A level. If you want to boost your sixth form's A level results, get more of the kids to do photography. The same goes for media studies. There is a terrible problem though and it is one which one seldom hears in maintained schools or FE colleges

All A levels are not equal. If you wish to get into a Russell Group university, A levels in photography or media studies will not be counted. This is another of those rules which many kids at state schools are not told. One of the teenagers at the Oxford summer school with my daughter had a load of A* GCSEs and really wanted to go to Oxford. She was however doing business studies, law and accountancy. All three of these A levels are useless if one wishes to go to Oxford. her school had not told her this when she made her choices and so she was effectively barred from many universities. It seems weird really. You might think that A level law or A level accountancy would be academic A levels which top universities would love. They are not. They are in the same category as photography. Another piece of information which state pupils are not told. Psychology is, on paper, a scientific subject like physics. Many universities though will not accept it.

The aim of sixth forms and FE colleges is to get as many students to pass A levels as possible. The more As that they achieve; the better. So it make sense to get them to push subjects which their pupils are more likely to pass, such as law and photography. The fact that these subjects effectively bar them from many universities is not revealed. It is another unspoken rule that many parents and children never learn.

In the ideal world, all children and their parents would have access to the sort of information which I have outlined above. Many do not. The children of our friends who will be studying photography and media studies will have, despite many good GCSEs, no chance at all of getting into Oxford, UCL, Cambridge or the LSA. At the age of sixteen, their schools have, in effect, made their choice for them about the universities that they will go to. This is shocking but very common in the state sector. I would not like to see home educated children in this position, which is why I have talked about this. Mind you, judging by the comments yesterday, I shall probably be described as 'extreme' or as having a chip on my shoulder about Oxbridge! As I said above, now I know how that little weatherman felt.

38 comments:

  1. The trouble is, Simon, that you aren't always a very GOOD weatherman. Remember how often you told us with absolute certainty that the DCSF Bill was GOING to become law? :-)

    Anyway, I agree that it's good to know what the 'soft' subjects are and that taking 5 of them for A Level is probably not a great idea.

    Most unis seem to want 3 A Levels and if you are interested in something specific, you need to check out which A Levels are preferred.

    Mrs Anon

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  2. I read something similar in the guardian recently, about the "secret list" of the RG unis, info so secret that it is on the admissions webpage for the course.

    I don't see how it is news that what have always been "soft" subjects won't get you into the most competitive of unis. What is shocking is that teachers aren't putting people straight including showing them where to look for confirmation if they won't take your word for it.

    If you are prepared to put the head's directives about his league tables before the ambitions of the teen you have in front of you then it is time to leave the classroom for a while and do something else till you have de-skewed yourself.

    I didn't know about A* at gcse being vital (is it the same for IGSEs ?). Is that for RG unis or any decent uni ?

    I'm also wondering how much I need to worry about this A* stuff, in six years maybe we will have AA** to worry about, or we will be back to the point where even a "lowly" B gets you a genuine "well done darling !" and a big fat hug.

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  3. Well, you can always scare yourself silly with stories like this one

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11023939

    Mrs Anon

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  4. anonymous said...

    The trouble is, Simon, that you aren't always a very GOOD weatherman. Remember how often you told us with absolute certainty that the DCSF Bill was GOING to become law? :-)

    your right anonymous Webb was so sure it would become law that he said it was no good trying to stop this law being passed they was nothing you could do you said!

    Well you where proved wrong webb and you cant accept that you chose the wrong side and lost!

    did it upset you to see how weak Balls/Badman really are the pair of them are just like a playground bully when you stand up to them there run!

    i love it when old balls had to say we droping the home education bit of the bill LOL

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  5. i had some one say to me in the street you won you stoped that bill about home education i know i said it feels great!

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  6. "Anonymous said...
    Well, you can always scare yourself silly with stories like this one

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11023939"

    No GCSEs and an independent school! That's really a winning combination if you wnat to get to Oxford!

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  7. Interesting, Simon, but I've always felt that you were more in the style of a man wailing "doom!" than a little chap with an umbrella.

    The thing is, Simon, that you seem to suggest that everyone should follow your path in case their child wishes to go to Oxbridge. Why? Is this the pinnacle of achievement? Does this really open many more doors in life than other paths? No. It opens *different* doors. Yes, it might be useful if you want to be PM (but even then, not essential!) or get a comedy series on the BBC... But if you want to work in a circus or be a plumber then there are more useful places to be.

    Life is complicated. Twisting paths are just as valid as straight lines. Yes, dead ends are not good. But dead ends can be found on university courses just as surely as anywhere else. I would never want to give my children the impression that a string of qualificationsa and a place at university is any guarantee of anything - not a good job, not a happy life. Yes, qualifications can be useful. I'm sure of that. But I'm hoping that home education is ensuring that my children know there is far more to education, and far more to life, than jumping the approved hoops.

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  8. "or end up doing vocational course instead."

    It may surprise you to know that some people might prefer a vocational course and actually aim for one as opposed to ending up on one, seeing it as vastly preferable to an academic course. You are such an education snob.

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  9. As you've been so cagey about your education background (as you seem so fond of speculating about others), I'm going to speculate that you either did not go to university or went to a very poor one and feel let down by either school or your parents on this score. You could have done so much more with your life if you had been given the correct support earlier on. This might explain your blinkered view about the value and desirability of going to a 'good university' to the exclusion of all other options.

    Any hits?

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  10. "It may surprise you to know that some people might prefer a vocational course and actually aim for one as opposed to ending up on one, seeing it as vastly preferable to an academic course. You are such an education snob. "

    No, it does not surprise me at all. I am object to young people being shunted in this direction without being given a choice in the matter.

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  11. "As you've been so cagey about your education background (as you seem so fond of speculating about others), I'm going to speculate that you either did not go to university or went to a very poor one and feel let down by either school or your parents on this score. "

    I wasn't aware that I had been at all cagey about this subject! If you are asking for my C.V. then it might be encouraging if you were to post your real name and C.V. first as a valuable example.

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  12. "you need to check out which A Levels are preferred."

    Few young people start checking out the specific requirements of unversities at the age of fifteen or sixteen when they choose their A levels. The trouble can start at seventeen, when they are filling out their UCAS form. By then it can be too late to do anything about it.

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  13. No, it does not surprise me at all. I am object to young people being shunted in this direction without being given a choice in the matter.

    schools shunt children in a certain direction marking children down as bright the right ones that will go to university the child does not get much of a say! it all depends on the view of the teachers! some school push boys towards being a plumber or bricklayer with no choice for the child dont hear speaking up for them?

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  14. "but I've always felt that you were more in the style of a man wailing "doom!"

    Pleasing image, Allie, which has given a good deal of amusement to my daughter!

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  15. "You are such an education snob. "

    Snob? Moi?

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  16. Labour are going to be out of power for some time Webb and by the time Labour do get power a number of failed ideas such as the old children bill will have been rejected by the new leadership of the Labour party under the Millbands there be looking for support from the middle classes just like the tory's did! your find Labour trying to distance its self form its past including old Balls and Badman! your not find many M,Ps wanting to have they picture taking with Balls or Badman! LOL

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  17. "Few young people start checking out the specific requirements of unversities at the age of fifteen or sixteen when they choose their A levels"

    I don't expect them to do that off their own bat, it is the adults that guide them who have dropped the ball.

    Even at "options" aged 14 (1982 I think) we were getting advice as to how the choices we made would open up or close down certain careers because they would make certain strands of FE \HE unavailable to us. Every single one of us had at least two encounters with the CO as well as one to one time with our subject teachers to make sure we weren't limiting ourselves accidentally.

    Why has that strategy been dropped ?

    Speaking of which, what services are on the table for HEing parents when it comes to setting up our kids with appointments with CO or consultants so they get some external guidence before picking and chosing the courses they want to do ? I assume there are private options out there ?

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  18. "schools shunt children in a certain direction marking children down as bright the right ones that will go to university the child does not get much of a say! it all depends on the view of the teachers! some school push boys towards being a plumber or bricklayer with no choice for the child dont hear speaking up for them?"

    A young person with a clutch of GCSEs and A levels will be able to choose whether or not to attend university or become a plumber. Just look at Viscount Lindley, the Queen's nephew. He chose to become a cabinet maker. However, a young person without any GCSEs or A levels will find his choices far more restricted. Whereas the one with the qualifications will be able to choose either an academic path or a vocational one, the one without any qualifications is far more likley to be forced down the vocational path. I do not think that this is a good thing because I would rather see young people having choices and not being bound by the decisions of their parents.

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  19. "A young person with a clutch of GCSEs and A levels will be able to choose whether or not to attend university or become a plumber."

    Or they may be refused an interview for a job as a plumber (with day release training) because they are over qualified.

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  20. "However, a young person without any GCSEs or A levels will find his choices far more restricted."

    They couldn't go on to get GCSEs and A levels? It's a bit easier to take them later than to go back in time and *not* take them so that you are not over qualified for a job you've decided you really want.

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  21. Webb says-I would rather see young people having choices and not being bound by the decisions of their parents.

    so teachers/state know better than the parents then Webb?

    and anonymous is right about being refused an interview for many jobs if your over qualified because the employer would be very worried you would just leave the job!

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  22. Das Bikramjit Gakhal has an A, two Bs and a C at A-level, but he is not going to university.

    He did apply and was offered places but withdrew from the admissions service Ucas when he realised he could pursue his chosen career of accountancy "on the job".

    Having done his A-levels this summer, Das will take up a job as an audit trainee with MacIntyre Hudson in September, while studying for an Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) qualification.

    Once that is done, he will study with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

    Continue reading the main story

    Start Quote
    It's by no means an easy way out, because the extra studying involved is intense”
    End Quote
    Adam Cooper

    Law student and employee
    "It's a much quicker route than university - you become chartered in four years," said Das, 18, from Leicester.

    "Whereas if I went to university, it's four years and then I'd still have to do my ACCA qualification, which normally takes two years."

    Debt fears

    Das plans to stay living at home for now and knows he will miss out on some of the social aspects of university life, but he believes the financial risks associated with studying for a degree are not worth taking.

    He said: "I was worried about debt, about coming out with all that debt on my shoulders.

    "And then you hear in the news that graduates are graduating... but they're not able to find a job."

    Laura Griggs, 19, from Leeds, took a similar path to Das last year and has no regrets: "I'd had enough of full-time education.

    "It's an enormous debt for three years, when you can get the qualification without getting into debt and earn money at the same time.


    Laura, 19, wanted to go straight into the world of work "Everybody seems to go to university, so this is a bit different."

    Laura is earning around £15,000 a year with Sagars in Leeds and is set to finish her AAT qualification in one and a half years.

    She hopes to become a chartered accountant by the time she would have graduated had she gone to university.

    Adam Cooper, 19, from Manchester also decided against the more conventional route, but is on track to become a solicitor by the time he is 25.

    Continue reading the main story

    Start Quote
    University is a life-changing, long-term investment ”
    End Quote
    Universities UK
    He was planning to do A-levels, but a chance conversation with a worker at Pannone law firm made him realise he could start work and study at the same time.

    The same law firm offered him an office assistant job and he started studying for an Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) professional diploma when he was 16.

    He is now working towards the Ilex Professional higher diploma in law and practice, which will allow him to become a solicitor.

    He earns more than £15,000 and says that putting theory into practice every day helps enormously with his studies: "While I've been quite capable academically, I get more value out of things when I practise at doing things.

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  23. "Or they may be refused an interview for a job as a plumber (with day release training) because they are over qualified"

    Well there is the option of not putting all and every single one of your quallies (or ALL your work experience, my favorite trick when anticipating an easily intimidated DOS) on the CV.

    It is good practice to rework your CV for each job you apply for and make sure it is tailored to exactly what they want by sticking to only the relevant information.

    You are highly unlikely to get stick for not having included every single detail on an application form, limiting yourself to that which you deemed relevant, it’s the inclusion of fantasy quals and experiences that is the area where you take a real risk of fallout.

    The issue about being “over qualified” they would likely have in the context you mentioned is that the person applying might be looking for a stop gap (a job, ANY job) until they find a position they really do want. Once you are in and have established yourself, revealing additional academic qualifications or experience later on can improve your chances of being fast tracked for moving up and on in a chosen path.

    In terms of a stumbling block “too many qualifications” is far easier to navigate around than trying to get past than “not enough qualifications”.

    My husband is the only antique restorers around here who went to uni, most left school at 12. He mentions it where it helps create connections with customers and keeps quiet where it might do the opposite. Best of both worlds.

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  24. "Well there is the option of not putting all and every single one of your quallies (or ALL your work experience, my favorite trick when anticipating an easily intimidated DOS) on the CV."

    How do you explain time gaps in your CV? I suppose you could claim you watched a lot of TV that year or years? What happens if they take up references and find out you lied on your CV?

    Over half of employers discount applicants they consider to be over qualified because they fear they will leave as soon as they find something better and training is often expensive even if it's done on the job. I wonder if anyone has been prosecuted for lying on their CV in this way? I know they have for inflating qualifications but I suppose it's unlikely for missing out qualifications.

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  25. As an employer I would be unhappy if someone missed a degree or A levels off a job application form that requested those details. I would wonder what else they had 'forgotten' to tell me.

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  26. yes anonymous is right what would happen if they took up references which most employers do now day or if they wrote to your school or college and found out you had lied about your exam results? no employer likes some one who has lied to them!

    it is true that many people are discounted from jobs becuase they are to over qualified the employer does not tell the person this is the reason but i have seen it done! same when people get to a certain age to! The employeer is very worried that who ever he/she takes on will stay and not just go so often people with no or very few eams results is a better bet as he/she is more likly to stay in the job long term!

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  27. Anonymous said...

    As an employer I would be unhappy if someone missed a degree or A levels off a job application form that requested those details. I would wonder what else they had 'forgotten' to tell me.

    your right to what else had he/she forgotten to tell you! its about trust

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  28. My reservations with the "alternative to uni" route taken by the people mentioned in the news are -

    How many of the reports are politically flavoured sweeteners to head off an outcry thanks to the lack of places caused by funding cuts, and if so can they be trusted as a unbiased source ?

    If at some point they wish to change direction will the lack of a degree prove to be a several year long blockage to a career change while they convert their route into credits and top them up as needed, IOW, do they risk being stuck in a money trap ?

    Will a lack of a degree block the kind of progress they want to make within their current company ?

    Will it lock them in to a smaller range of companies who are prepared to accept a non uni route to qualified status ?

    Will it limit their eligibility for promotions and career improvement in international terms ? (i.e. are they among the few that CAN’T have the opportunity to go and work for HQ in X country for a year ?) (NB I appreciate that most often isn’t a concern for UK peeps, but for us more Eurotrash types, it can be an issue.)

    Are these opportunities limited to precious few applicants and are there certain unknown elements at play that place these people at an advantage in terms of accessing them ?


    There is more than one way to skin a cat and somebody who detests the idea of uni is probably best looking into alternative routes, even if it does involve compromise. However it is an absolute necessity that they make that potential compromise from an fully informed position as to how accessible the alternative routes are and how going that route might limited their options later.

    I would hate to see newspaper reports being used as reliable information by parents trying to weigh up their kids future options.

    Especially those that are reported around the time that ministers are saying “there is more to life than uni (as long as it isn’t my kid left in clearing), look at the alternatives !! Please don’t take much notice of the sudden dearth of places and notice how much funding has been slashed”.

    I am in favour of alternatives, I don’t like the current setting where a degree is the be all and end all (not least cos I don't have one) and round pegs face being shoved into square holes for four years just to they can get to a point where they can access their round hole.

    I’m not so in favour of mirage or half explained alternatives, and without further detailed investigation the ones mentioned above might be fantastic news full of solid info or an exercise in pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes trying to ward off a political row about cuts.

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  29. So, at least two or three people commenting here feel that it might be dangerous to have too many qualifications becuse this might harm your employment prospects. Interesting perspective.

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  30. You should try temping in call centres, loads of well qualified people there who cant get permanent work because they are considered overqualified. Its not imagined - overqualification is an issue for anyone who has chosen a specialism which is not currently hiring. Employers dont know what to do with you, or theyre intimidated by you, or they see you as unreliable, likely to run off at the first opportunity.

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  31. Anonymous said...

    You should try temping in call centres, loads of well qualified people there who cant get permanent work because they are considered overqualified. Its not imagined - overqualification is an issue for anyone who has chosen a specialism which is not currently hiring. Employers dont know what to do with you, or theyre intimidated by you, or they see you as unreliable, likely to run off at the first opportunity.

    yes you are so right! Employers will in most cases not give an over qualified worker permanent work and it is not imagined it really happens in the real world Simon!

    Employers want some who is going to stay in the job for a long time i have been in a office when we being looking for a new person and many people are turned down becuase they are over qualified the boss said we dont want some one coming in here telling us what to do and the next minute they gone to anther job! of course that person was not told that was why he/she did not get the job peopel with loads of GCSE and A levels are far more likly to change jobs!

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  32. "So, at least two or three people commenting here feel that it might be dangerous to have too many qualifications becuse this might harm your employment prospects. Interesting perspective."

    Not dangerous, you are overstating my point of view at least. I would guess that more qualifications are *usually* better than less. Just making the point that having more qualifications may close some doors that an individual might have preferred had been left open. If they find they require vocational courses they will be a similar number of years 'behind' others who started following this route at 16, in much the same way as someone who decides they want to take a more academic route later on.

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  33. cont

    People always find out that I have considerably wider experience than I revealed on my CV. Especially since I tell them AFTER I’ve been there long enough for them to have got over any qualms about “over qualification”. I've never had anybody be anything other than a bit chuffed when they realized they could now squeeze free teacher training out of me and (fail) to hassle me into a DOS position.

    I personally can live with that lot in moral terms when playing my cards close to my chest when it comes to the stuff I have in my hand that may worry employers in terms of being “over qualified”. It’s a minor risk I am prepared to take to let me compete in a job market that has it knickers in a twist about cultural expectations regarding pay scales, qualifications and experience.

    If you or your children find it abhorrent, well then ....don't do it. Reveal all, to all of the people, all of the time. Pick the risk of not getting an interview, sometimes for being under qualified and sometimes for being over qualified instead.

    I personally am not going to mindlessly jump through hoops as high or as completely as they imagined I might so they can unfairly place me at a disadvantage thanks to success. I have enough on my plate managing the hoops that trip me up thanks to failure to get any significant educational qualifications to go alongside my “alternative route” into teaching.

    I’m already ruminating over how to word the educational section of my son’s future CV, certainly for the Italian version I’m thinking along these lines

    X city, UK (well that is where he will have sat the exams)
    Date
    Details of exams passed

    Because I am not going to set him up for being passed over out of prejudice because I took the only option available to us in order for him to get an education. Once they know him, once he has had a chance to demonstrate that he isn’t some product of “religious nutjob” and by definition some kind of “anti social freak”, then they can be directly and clearly informed that he was home educated.

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  34. I hope those who are aiming for their children to attend university are also preparing them for alternatives, because if this is an accurate summary of the current situation, many of them are likely to need it.

    Of the 650,000 people applying for university this year, up to 200,000 will miss out on a place because the government has placed an arbitrary cap on the number of people that can go to university. This is not based on the number of qualified candidates – 3,500 straight A students weren’t offered a university place last year – but rather a lack of willingness from successive governments to fund places for every student with the ability and ambition to go into higher education.

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  35. "I hope those who are aiming for their children to attend university are also preparing them for alternatives"

    I'm thinking OU as a WCS backup plan, it would be an epic fail in terms of giving him the university/living in England experience, but better than uni here, in fact it would be quicker than uni here which often takes as long as 7 years to slog through with very limited subjects on offer.

    At which point I would be stalking family members in the UK with the intent of foistering him on them for extended periods while I did my very best to pretend I wasn't hovvering and checking up on him every five minutes.

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  36. "3,500 straight A students weren’t offered a university place last year "

    That bit *might* have something to do with the league table fiasco. Straight As in what ?
    If students are not being advised accurately as to

    1) what subjects they need to study to follow the path they have chosen

    2) how to chose a realistic insurance place

    Then that could account for a good chunk of the number who appear to be prime candidates inexplicably left without a place, both last year and this. Kids let down by league table prtectionism being more important that informing people about the suitability of their choices.

    I do think if the extent to which subject choice can impact the possibility of offers gets publicized you'll see less "straight A students left out in the cold".

    Nothing except a return to a growth in funding will stop the squeezing out of students who weren’t born to parents with money being pushed out of higher ed though. If funding is being slashed at uni level I can’t see either government or industry stepping and beefing up funding for alternative routes into training or education in the current economic climate.

    That combined with high unemployment is …sucky.

    I’m no great shakes on economic theory, but wouldn’t we need the stimulus of unfilled jobs in a time of growth to provoke gov/industry into finding the cash and the inclination to provide a wider, more innovative variety of routes into education and training ?

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  37. " Its not imagined - overqualification is an issue for anyone who has chosen a specialism which is not currently hiring"

    That's always been true. My father forced me to sit through an hour long documentary in 197somehting to warn me of the dangers of going into teaching. Newly minted teacher after newly minted teacher was paraded working as a temp green grocer delivery boy or similarly not-happy-face-making job and generally looking very depressed and unhappy. With Dire Warnings being made by the presenter.

    I think it is important to bring kids' attention to any overly competitive market they are very interested in so they can spread their options out a little to gain an edge, or look beyond the domestic employment market with the addition of a language via courses plus an internship overseas.

    Just not sure 7 years old is the best timeframe to try and brainwash your child out of a career in education though. Seems a tad premature to say the least.

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