Arbitrary rules which impede learning

September 15, 1995

Three years ago Victoria College offered a subject at A level as a one-year course. Twenty students signed up for it and the results were so good that we offered the course again the following year. This time there were 30 takers, and although the results were not quite so spectacular, they were still very good. Last year there was only one applicant for the course - which meant we could not run it.

The main factor in the disaffection seems to have been the unfair treatment that several of our successful students had received at the hands of some university admissions tutors. The subject that we had experimented in as a one-year A level was philosophy. We had two philosophy graduates on the staff, one of whom had run an extra-curricular philosophy club. This had generated so much enthusiasm among the sixth-formers that they had asked if they could do the subject as a fourth A level, taking it up in the second year sixth. The opportunity was also offered to those boys in the lower sixth who were prepared to do it as a fourth A level. Those who took up the challenge tended to be among the academically most able boys in their year.

The results were very good - of 20 students, 11 achieved grade A, four grade B, and the remaining five achieved the remaining spread of pass grades between them. Of the boys in the upper sixth all but one achieved a grade A. Certainly the grades helped them to make the required grades for their university entrance. A spin-off was that one or two students who had been floundering badly in one of their original A-level subject choices at the end of the lower sixth had switched to philosophy for the upper sixth. For these it provided a successful third A level, after an inappropriate initial choice.

Several of the lower sixth students had achieved grades A and B, and proudly declared these on their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms. To their surprise, however, some admissions tutors still demanded a further three A level grades. This included certain Cambridge colleges. The situation was so disturbing that I visited some of the colleges concerned. Of the four colleges I visited in Cambridge one amended an offer made to a student who had already obtained one of the top five marks in the country in his A-level philosophy. The offer was reduced from AAB to AB. The student concerned actually wanted to read philosophy - he duly gained his place. Two other colleges assured me that any student who had already gained an A or B grade would have that grade integrated into a three-A-level offer. After discussion they agreed that it would be unfair to ignore or discount an A level already gained. Although the admissions tutor at the fourth college expressed sympathy for the case put to her, she said that the matter would have to go to the academic board, who had already ruled on the issue, declaring that all three A levels which formed the basis of their offers would have to be sat at the same time.

The only reason given for insisting that the A levels are taken at the same sitting is that students who take a subject early have an advantage over those who have to prepare for exams in three subjects at the same time. However, any advantage thus gained could be countered by the potential drawback of having to mature academically a year earlier to meet the demands of an A-level examination after only one year in the sixth form.

The point is that exams are best taken when the student is ready for them. If the teaching pace can prepare a student to be ready to take an exam after one year, then that is when the student should sit the exam.

As a matter of curriculum development, I wanted to encourage students to make a serious study of philosophy because I feel that it develops both their reasoning skills and their articulation. At sixth-form level I feel it offers an intellectual basis to underpin other subjects. In the International Baccalaureate an aspect of formal philosophical study is compulsory.

The wish to make the course a formal A-level course is thwarted by university admissions tutors who then refuse to acknowledge the achievement. The message to both students and teachers is that their efforts have been wasted. Since we are all in the same enterprise of promoting learning, it is unhelpful, to say the least, when university teachers fail to take into account what effect their arbitrary rulings will have on legitimate academic developments in school sixth forms.

I have also visited several colleges in Oxford and admissions tutors at several provincial universities. All have agreed that they would accept a high grade in a subject taken a year early as part of their formal offer to a candidate. Although this personal approach has yielded positive results, it is very time consuming.

If university places have to be made on the basis of three A-level results to the vast majority of candidates, then those candidates who have the energy, the ambition, and the academic interest to pursue more than three subjects, should receive offers based on their best three A levels. Anything else is a disincentive to the learning process of ambitious students and hardworking teachers.

Jack Hydes is headmaster of Victoria College, one of Jersey's two secondary grammar schools.

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