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higher education

A levels – isn’t it wonderful that teenagers will pass or fail in three hours?

The Government has announced A levels are changing. Qualifications will now be based solely upon the ability to pass or fail within a three-hour window of time after two years’ of study.

A mum's view of changes to the A level

The Government wants students to pass A levels through examination only.

When I’m writing for anyone else, I would write about this dispassionately, reporting the matter and canvassing the points of view of others. However, here in my blogging space I can talk as an ex-A level student and as a mother of a teenager.

For me this decision is a dreadful backward step.

 

Let’s not sugar coat this – it’s also a way of lowering the number of people who go into higher education.

It reminds me of a cartoon I saw on Facebook this week, shared by a teacher, showing various animals standing in front of a desk where a teacher was telling them that their pass depended on their ability to climb the tree behind them. The animals included a monkey, an elephant, a bird, a fish….you get the idea. It sweetly encapsulated the problems of examinations when I was doing my O and A levels in the 1980s.

The truth is, we are not all the same and we excel in different areas and that’s how life is. I firmly believe the pressure of an examination is good and I advocate them – but I also believe equal weight should go to course work over the years which shows a level of consistency of achievement, or not, as the case may be.

For me that’s a fairer reflection of someone’s true ability. 

 

In my days  in the sixth form, I loved my studies and I worked very hard. I consistently got As and Bs in my work and that was the expectation for my final examinations. But I knew I wasn’t good at examinations. I found the pressure difficult to manage, I found revision overhwhelming, trying to cover everything all of the time. I didn’t know where to start and went for a scattergun approach. It didn’t work.

My fears were realised when I just about scraped through my A levels. I didn’t fail but I didn’t do well enough to go to a university in the country at that time.

Ironically there was an examination at that time called an S level – higher than an A level. It was in English literature and involved three questions, and you could take texts in with you. I was the only one in my school who took it, a week after all the other examinations had finished. Everyone was demob happy and I still had another exam to do.

Armed with my Complete Works of Shakespeare and Complete Works of Chaucer, I didn’t worry about that one, because I could take the texts in and I knew I could find quotations really quickly. Got a distinction in that exam – with a D in the A level itself.

I did a degree at a college of higher education where coursework counted towards your final result and I did learn how to revise more effectively. But from then on, any test or examination I have done, has involved assessment on the job alongside high pressure tests. For me, that’s more real.

I have a daughter who is like me. I can now see myself reflected in the way she studies and I’m trying to help her be more effective than me. It pains me to think that she may, just may, be disadvantaged in 2018 if she goes on to do A levels. Will she, like me, fail to deliver because her opportunity will come and go within three hours?

What kind of message does this give our children?

 

GCSEs and A levels are easier…so let’s make them harder. Really?

I always find this time of year frustrating when exam results come out for young people – results on which the future depends – or so it seems for those affected. For young people of 16 or 18, getting the ‘right’ results can feel like it’s the only important thing in the world.

And that makes me so angry. It’s also all the media coverage of journalists in schools and colleges with students poised to open their results envelopes. And oh surprise! It’s all As and A*s and Bs, no failures, no really low marks…..

 

Do I blame the media for this? Not entirely.

Everyone should have a chance to shine.....

Everyone should have the opportunity to shine.....

 

I do blame the industry for continually telling the same story in the same way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to follow a young person who didn’t do so well and help them find a new way forward? How useful would that be?

But, of course, any journalist knows that it’s not that easy. What school or college wants to put forward a student who is not at the top of the class?  Who wants to line up potential failures for exposure? And which young person is willing to be publicly shown as not having done very well?

 

The truth is that many, many young people don’t get As and A*s or even Bs or Cs. Yet the overriding impression is that more people are getting these grades so the examinations must be getting easier.

Examinations are now very different to the outdated O level and CSE system. In those days, you had one opportunity to shine and it occurred during a two or three hour window in a high pressure examination, based on what you could remember.

If, like me, you didn’t function well under that kind of pressure as a teenager – the thought that now my own children can gain marks for the long piece of coursework they’ve slaved over and lavished passion upon is uplifting. To me, it’s a much fairer system allowing youngsters who don’t thrive under examination pressure to have their chance to shine. And that’s generally how degrees and higher education and vocational qualifications work.

I do agree with high pressure examinations being part of a marking system – as life is full of high pressure situations, including a professional life. But that’s not all that is important. Coursework has its place and should be considered, especially in very vocational courses.

Also I think we should hear far more about what to do if you don’t do as well as you hoped. I worked very hard for my O levels and did reasonably well – but now when I go for a job no one cares if I’ve got O levels let alone what the grades were….but then I’m old….

As for A levels, I did pass but that was about all. And that was hugely disappointing – I was expected to be an A/B grade student. I turned out not to be. I would have been the student who, being filmed, was beaming as they opened that envelope and then in floods of tears for not having achieved what was expected.

So what did I do while clasping my C,D,E grades in my hands – knowing I’d failed to gain a place at university studying Medieval English, which was my passion at the time. Did I re-take my examinations to get better grades? Did I give up on higher education and try to find a job?

In my case, I took advice from the school and applied at ‘lower’ level establishments, went through a secondary interview  process for courses which were not full. I went to Bath College of Higher Education (now Bath Spa University) to study on a new BA Hons course in Combined Studies of English Literature & History. And I had a brilliant time there, met some great friends and worked alongside some wonderful lecturers. I must name check here Dr Mara Kalnins – who was very special to me as we shared a love for the work of author D H Lawrence.

While waiting to start my course, an article came out in the local paper listing the achievements of the students who’d done well and where they would be going to study. My name was last and it simply said ‘Fiona Bune is going to Bath’. The suggestion, to me, was that readers would assume I was going to the University of Bath. I’d rather they’d put nothing because it made me feel like an also-ran, an after thought. Years later, I became the reporter on that weekly newspaper managing and writing such stories – what an irony.

So this blog is a message to all of those young people who didn’t get the As and A*s and who are feeling that somehow they’ve failed. You have not failed. You simply are now required to re-assess and think about what you want to do next – then ask for help to get there. How you handle this situation will say far more about who you are – than any amount of A grades. And that’s what a future employer will remember…..

 

When you left school, how did you feel? Share your experience.

My stepdaughter is a few days away from finishing school, A levels completed. It’s a time that she, and many like her, have been waiting for – that moment when you are free and able to take charge of your own destiny.

Or is it? Looking back, I wonder just how much it’s ‘the world’s your oyster’ or is it really ‘I’m all at sea”? It’s easy to think what a wonderful time this is – but for those young people who don’t have a clear plan of where they are going, it’s a scary time.

Before you know it - she's 18.....

Suddenly you are an adult, almost overnight. You are expected to take a certain path – is it university? is it college? is it a job?  Which way do you go? And how much time do you have to get there? Some young people are expected to immediately start earning in order to pay their way. But right now, it’s not that easy. Our young people communicate in a totally different way to us – so picking up the phone to push yourself, or going in to personally hand in a CV is something which scares them. E-mail is great, but it keeps those experiences, those rejections at arms’ length.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing – but today, it’s a hard, hard thing. This is especially true if you are not driven in any particular direction. Passion for a certain profession comes through so strongly and can be infectious but if you don’t know what you want to do – how can you be passionate?

For me, there was never any question of not going into higher education – even though no one else in my family had ever done it. Indeed my Gran thought I was mad to continue ‘studying at school’. For her it was all about getting a job, getting married and having children. That was a woman’s path and any woman who didn’t follow that path was slightly odd.

When I was 16, my father made me go out and get a Saturday job. He said I needed to earn my own money. I remember him putting pressure on me, I have no memory of finding said job or how that came about. But I worked in the Littlewoods store in Southgate, Bath in the small food hall. My monthly earnings came to about £23 – and I felt so rich.

When I finished school, I floundered horribly – I had a steady boyfriend who worked and didn’t get the whole education thing – students were a drain on taxpayers. No surprise we didn’t last the distance.

In fact I didn’t do well enough to get to university to study my beloved English literature, but I did get on to a course in a college of higher education. It was a wonderful period of my life and I’ve never regretted it. I worked every summer holiday so that I could pay off debts and save some cash. Somehow my life bounced along. I wanted to train to be a teacher. Little did I know that would not be the case.

As I look at my beautiful step-daughter and see her juggling her options, I understand how she feels and I haven’t got the heart to tell her that grand plans at her age generally go completely to pieces.

I haven’t got the heart to tell her that life is like that, you make a plan and something comes along to mix things up unexpectedly.

I suppose the lesson is that, the crossroads before her is the start of a scary  adventure – one of many – and that’s okay.

Tuition fees – they’re a great idea? Aren’t they?

Facing the future - to pay or not to pay? for university.

Today was a proud day for me – my beautiful step-daughter embraced the spotlight and appeared on BBC1 in the West presenting a film about tuition fees.

In a short film for regional current affairs programme Inside Out West, she talked about the decision she faces when it comes to going to university or not. Pride aside, it’s an issue we’ve discussed a lot. We cannot pay for her to go to university so she would have to pay her way, through debt.

This has made me think of my own experience of higher education and question the whole issue of tuition fees. At a basic level, I hate the idea, I want all education to be free. It feels as if it’s something that all young people should be able to enjoy.

I’m not coming from a political view-point – I try to avoid that as I’m a journalist and am not keen on pinning my colours to the mast. 

It was 1984 when I was in my step-daughter’s situation. This was a time when just six per cent of those eligible – went to university.

In fact I wasn’t clever enough to go, I went to a college of higher education. I had a great time and have no regrets. I’ve always worked since, but I’ve never earned big bucks. However, for most years, I’ve earned more than £21k.

What have I got out of it? Huge life experience, a knowledge of how to seek knowledge effectively, friends from all walks of life, a worldview that means that life has no boundaries when it comes to career or travel, dreams can be chased, education is enriching. I also work in a career where a degree is essential, it gives you a head start – and that’s all.

But there is one big difference. I left with minimal debt – less than £1,000 after three years. Each year, my fees were paid and I got a grant of £2,200 to pay my bills. I did do a weekend job in my last year of study.

So it’s shocking to me that my own step-daughter or my other children could face a debt of up to £50,000 – and with interest this could rise to £75,000.

Now, almost 50 per cent of young people can go to university, is it realistic that we, as a society, can fund in the way that I was funded?

And is the cost really so high? Martin Lewis of Martins Money Tips says the actual cost will not be as much as that.  If you earn enough to pay it all back, then you will. If not, then you won’t. And there’s something in that. But it still feels like a tax on education.

And the fact that if you’re rich enough you can pay fees upfront undoubtedly gives young people from wealthier families an advantage. The price tag does put off young people from low and middle income families, so there’s another issue there for me. Applications are almost ten per cent down already, and it’s early days.

In all, I understand tuition fees, though I don’t like them. I’m not confident that poorer students will choose university and I’m pretty sure that those from middle income families will also think twice.

I’m not sure if that’s good for a society which wants to compete at the highest level –  but time will tell.  

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