Should A Level results really dictate funding at University?

A leak from the Augur review of post-18 education suggests that students who gain lower than DDD at A level may not in future be eligible for student loans – instead they would be offered cheaper vocational courses. This would be a disaster for access to higher education. It wouldn’t do vocational options much good, either.

I don’t have anything to do with admissions at NTU, but in my previous job as Head of Educational Studies in a different university it was a central aspect of my role. Every year we took a few new students who had low A level scores, and in almost all cases our faith in them was justified by their hard work and later success.

We were able to do this because we made sure that we got to know our candidates. We interviewed almost everyone who applied, used that interview to test their ability to think and respond to ideas, and then invited them to offer holder days at which we got to know them better. This attention to individuals meant that we were able to get a good idea about how they would fare as undergraduates. The admissions tutor took careful notes on all of them and gave them an overall score.

When we got the A level results, anyone who had missed their target grades – well above DDD – was considered carefully, using these notes. Those who had performed well at interview were accepted anyway. By the time I came to teach them myself, when they were in their second year, most of those students were thriving – indeed, some were the most articulate contributors in class and wrote the most interesting, well-researched and considered essays.

Intelligent and motivated young people for whom things have gone wrong in their last few years at school, or even just during the exams, can get a second chance with degree study – and in my experience they appreciate this opportunity and do well. Surely, we should be supporting them, rather than excluding them in favour of young people whose parents have paid for coaching to enable them to just pass the DDD target?

I’m not knocking vocational courses, by the way – they are often excellent for people who want to go down that route. But treating them as a cheaper second class option for people who have not done so well in their A levels is not going to do anything to reduce the academic/vocational divide or improve public perceptions of vocational routes. It will simply reinforce their image as lower status qualifications, and work against current attempts to establish apprenticeships at degree level and above.

Restricting student loans to those people for whom education has been straightforward and supported is extraordinarily unfair. It would exclude young people who have had disrupted childhoods, gone to failing schools, not really got the point of education until their late teens, or are simply bad at exams. It would include privileged teenagers who have been coached hard to obtain three Ds. And offering vocational choices as a cheaper, lower level, forced alternative is like a replay of the 11+ split between grammar schools and secondary moderns. We simply cannot allow it to happen.

Carrie Paechter

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