I officially became a home educator in 1998, when my daughter turned five. I had of course been taking her sister out of school for a few days a week to teach her, before this, but 1998 was when I assumed sole responsibility for the education of a child of ‘school age’.
At that time, it was commonly supposed among many home educators that GCSEs would not be around for much longer and that there was little point in getting their children to sit them. After all, there were other options. Studying with the Open University was one of these, another was going to a further education college at fourteen or fifteen to take GCSEs and then A levels; if the child wished to go on to university that is. Fifteen years later and some parents whose children are not at school have much the same kind of attitude; that GCSEs are on the way out and that even if they weren’t, they are not that important anyway.
Now I am not one who thinks that university is the be-all and end-all, the ultimate aim, of a child’s education. One of my children took A levels and went to university and the other did not. I regard both as successful, in that they both decided when they were young what it was that they wished to do. They then went on to achieve their very different goals. It was however important to me that both had the option of going to university if that was what they wanted. Which of course is where GCSEs enter the picture.
There was a time when many colleges ran GCSE courses in various subjects and if you wanted to skip GCSEs entirely and study for A levels at an FE college; well, that was also possible. You might have to work at it a little, but it was often possible to find a way round the entrance requirements. Many teenagers managed to study A levels without having very many or indeed any GCSEs or GCEs at all. Times change, of course. I have been prompted to reflect upon this by looking at the college to which my younger daughter went in 2009.
Harlow College used to be, to put the case bluntly, a really shit place. It was full of kids who were just marking time and the drop-out rate was astronomical. When my daughter applied, the college was just raising their standards. Nobody was allowed on any A level course, under any circumstances, unless they had at least five GCSEs, all at grade C or higher. There were no exceptions to this rule and it had the effect of fewer students dropping out of A levels half way through the course. A few home educated children tried to get in without GCSEs and were turned away. Even so, three years ago, there were still colleges where you could get onto an A level course without GCSEs; it was still happening.
I have dealings with Harlow College and I see now that anybody wanting to study for A level mathematics there now needs six GCSEs, one of which must be mathematics with at least a grade B. I am sure that this will reduce the drop-out rate still further, but it has the side effect of making the place even less accessible to home educated children. Ringing around, I have found the same kind of thing happening in other colleges in various parts of the country. We are moving towards a situation where sixteen year-old home educated children simply will not be able to study for A levels at colleges or sixth forms unless they have a clutch of GCSEs. This has serious implications for those who might wish to go on to university.
Of course, there are other routes into university apart from A levels. There is the IB, but this cannot be done at home. There is that old standby, the Open University, but anybody using this method stands a good chance of queering the pitch for a later application to the student loans people. Some courses, mainly those in the arts, can be entered through portfolios or auditions, but A levels are by far the commonest way in. It is worth parents bearing these factors in mind if their children are not at school. Obviously, it would be an unfortunate situation if a decision about not doing GCSEs had the later effect of preventing a child from going to university at eighteen if she wished to.
As I said earlier, fifteen years after I began as a home educator, some people are saying precisely the same things as were being said about GCSEs in 1998. Things have changed radically since then though and this must be borne in mind when reading success stories from the past of children without qualifications who managed to get into colleges and universities anyway. These routes are closing down rapidly and the time may come when formal qualifications such as GCSEs are absolutely vital if a child wishes to go into further or higher education.