Schools not at fault 1

July 30, 2004

More than half of vice-chancellors think first-year students lack the necessary skills to study for a degree, according to your article "Students 'lack basics'" (July 16). The blame, however, does not lie solely with schools, if at all.

Consider the following factors: Curriculum 2000 was designed to encourage "breadth". One outcome is that there is less specialisation at AS and A level: students take more subjects than their predecessors and may mix science and maths with a language or humanity. Some universities, such as Cambridge and University College London, strongly favour this type of subject combination.

Universities set the admissions standards and, if they are willing to accept students who demonstrably do not have the skills for a particular degree course, then they must expect to have to equip them.

It is generally recognised that it is more difficult to achieve high grades in maths, physics and chemistry than in other A levels, so it is not surprising that students choose less demanding subjects to achieve the best grades for university admission.

Schools are responding to Government policy and social trends: we do not set the agenda for curriculum reform. But, in the end, the choice lies with the students themselves.

My school is remarkably successful in maths and the sciences; maths and chemistry are the two most popular subjects in our sixth form and our results are outstanding in both. Yet even we can see the nature of the problem at university level that has been caused by a policy of discouraging early specialisation. It is universities that will have to change to cope with the arrival of students with aptitude and ability but without quite the same depth of knowledge and skills that their professors had when they left school.

Iain Farrell
Director of studies, Harrow School

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