A friend of my daughter's began sixth form last September. She is not an unintelligent child and perfectly able to pursue academic studies and hopes to attend university. The A levels which she is taking, chosen with the help of her teachers, are; Photography, Health and Social Care, Media Studies and Art. She has no particular interest in any of these subjects but was assured by her teachers that all A levels were equal and that since these were easier to get good grades in, she may as well take them. It need hardly be mentioned that this choice has now meant that she has barred herself from even being considered for a place by many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of home education for our family was the ability to choose freely what was studied. Although I understand very well the rationale behind this, it is still depressing to see a child of fourteen choosing his options at schools and being told that he cannot study both history and geography, or perhaps that if he chooses to study science then he must also study religion. The system as it is currently operated in maintained schools is more often intended to help the school boost their position in the league tables or avoid awkward timetable clashes than it is designed to benefit the pupils. Separate sciences at GCES are avoided because they require more specialised teaching and also because not all that many kids will pass them as compared to double award science. Our priest was touchingly impressed a few years ago at the fact that Religious Studies was becoming so popular as a GCSE. He thought that it was a sign of religious revival in the country. What a mug! Actually of course, it was a sign that schools had found an easy GCSE which could ramp up their scores.
Part of the problem is that there is no general guide to what good universities will want when the child applies to them. For most parents, this means trusting the teachers to advise them wisely. Telling parents that A level Photography or General Studies are just as highly regarded as Mathematics or Physics is a very common dodge on the part of colleges and schools. Universities in the Russell or 94 group have a tendency simply to disregard such A levels when making their decisions. They often use GCSE results as a tiebreaker as well, which nobody tells the kids when they are fourteen. The child's future prospects can therefore be blighted four years before he even applies to university.
The marvellous thing about home education is that one is not constrained by this sort of thing. If one wishes to do Physics, Chemistry and Biology, rather than double award science, then away you go. You can do one or two key GCSEs like Maths and English or you can do a dozen; the choice is completely your own. Come to that, you don't have to do any at all if you feel that your child would do better in life as a crossing sweeper. In maintained schools, most children are compelled to do some subjects at GCSE which they really dislike, are useless at and will not benefit them at all in their future life.
Those whose children go to sixth or Further Education colleges will probably be aware that these places often encourage children to take Photography, Film Studies and so on. This is not of course because the colleges believe that there will be massive opportunities for photographers and film directors in a couple of years time when the kids leave college. It is because these subjects are fairly easy to pass and add to the colleges success rate. In other words, the A levels which are being pushed are those which will benefit the colleges rather than be of any use to the students.
The problem is that for those who do want their children to go to college, one has to abide by the rules which they impose. Some insist that students do at least one useless A level like General Studies. This is an insurance policy on their part, a way of guaranteeing that there is at least one A level per student which will be passed. Doing A levels at home is very difficult, due to things like coursework and even those home educating parents who have negotiated the GCSE paths, sometimes baulk at doing A levels at home. This can mean some hard bargaining with the college in order to get what is best for the child. This is fine for home educators; most of them are used to arguing with educational professionals anyway and most get their own way in these matters. The problem is for the children whose parents are used to relying upon what teachers tell them. These kids are likley to be railroaded into useless subjects which they neither enjoy nor will be any use to them later.