What I think the Telegraph meant to say about A-Levels and University

27th January 2013

The Telegraph tells us today that:

“hundreds of secondary schools did not produce a single pupil with high enough grades in tough academic subjects to win a place at elite universities.”

I suspect this is nonsense. Here’s what I think they meant:

Top universities have long produced lists of subjects they generally approve of or which you need in order to study say, Medieval Othography (or whatever subject it might be). For example Kenichi Udagawa tweeted this one last week from Kings College Cambridge.

Then, in February last year, The Russell Group published a guide to picking A levels called “Informed Choices”. This was a good thing: the process of getting into these elite universities can appear opaque to say the least, particularly if you have no family history of going to them. It’s a detailed guide which runs through a whole range of qualifications from Highers to Diplomas and A-levels to the International Baccalaureate and which suggests that there is whole range of subjects and qualifications that might get you in to the hallowed Russell Group halls.

Amongst the guidance is a list of “facilitating subjects;” subjects which are solid, dependable and widely applicable which “are required more often than others”. These subjects “open doors to more degrees and more professions than others” and “provide more options” (my emphasis). If you’d like to get in to a Russell group uni but do not know what degree you would like to study, it suggests, you might like to pick “some” of these subjects, perhaps “your two favourite” because “many degrees” (note “degrees” not “universities”) “will not be open to you” otherwise. It also cautions against doing more than one “soft” subject, but that does not rule out two A levels in “hard” subjects and one “soft” (so it’d seem odd to rule out two and two). Even more importantly, it describes facilitating subjects as “examples” of hard subjects, not an exhaustive list. It states that “all the facilitating subjects listed earlier can be considered ‘hard’ with the addition of others such as Economics and Politics”.

Then, in July, the government published its Statement of Intent for the 2012 School and College League Tables. This announced the creation of a new accountability measure which was to be introduced post facto – i.e. schools had entered pupils/pupils had entered these exams without knowing the measure would exist. It consisted of pupils achieving AAB grades in THREE facilitating subjects. Thus appeared the first divergence from what the Russell group unis had said. They had never mentioned THREE.

Substance is one thing but presentation is a whole different issue and last week, what with announcements on KS4 exam reform AND new league tables, things moved one step further. Achieving the new gold star that comes with AABs in these magic subjects suddenly became the holy-grail. Anything less was failure.

So yes, in hundreds of schools, no pupils won this particular gold star. I suspect that’s what the Telegraph meant to say.