If you are about to receive your GCSE results. Good luck! If you had worked hard for them, you will no doubt be feeling about collecting them.  I hope it goes well for you and you manage to get the results you need to help you move in with your life.
If you plan to stay in education you may also be considering your A level choices. Advice on A level choices is varied and can depend on who you speak to and their own educational background.
Here is some advice that I think is impartial and also puts the some of the many points to consider in one place.
Do something you like and do something you are good at 
This is always my number-one piece of advice. There are various other factors to consider when choosing A level subjects of course, but after you’ve considered these, please always come back to these two questions:
– Am I good /going to be good at this subject?
– Do I/will I enjoy this subject?
If you do this, it is difficult to go far wrong with your choices. You have to remember that A levels are difficult qualifications to get. Whatever the press may tell you, whatever you hear about ‘grade inflation’ or that A levels are no longer the ‘gold standard’ in British education, the fact remains that they are tough. There is an old cliche about the gap between gcse and A level and that many are unable to bridge this gap, but it is more that a cliche. It is true.  If you have no real interest in the subject or if you struggled at GCSE level, no matter how good (or bad) your teachers or how hard you worked (or didn’t), you will have a difficult time over the next two years.
Do you want to go to university?  What do you want to study when you get there?
Some people already know what they want to do post-A level which can be a big help in choosing A level subjects.  For example, if you want to be a doctor, you will almost certainly have to do at least two from biology, chemistry, maths and physics.  If you want to do a history degree it makes sense to study history A level, if you are keen on biochemistry it would make sense to do biology and chemistry and if you want to study French, it would be difficult to do this without French A level!
If you’re not sure about what you want to do post-A level, don’t panic and don’t feel like you have to decide now.  A levels are not “vocational” qualifications, in themselves they don’t prepare you you specifically for a career.  They are designed to be studied, learned and enjoyed and although some subjects may guide you towards particular careers, that is not necessarily the main reason to choose a subject.
I want to be a lawyer so I’ll do A level law, right?
This is a common misconception.  You don’t need to do law A level either to be a lawyer or to study law at university.  Similarly you don’t need an economics degree to study economics and you don’t need to take business studies A level to study business.  In fact a huge number of degree subjects do not have any specific A level requirements.  I therefore suggest you go back the the “do I enjoy this/am I good at it” rule when considering your A level choices.
Facilitating subjects
Having said that, in recent years, the Russell group (a group containing some of the UK’s leading universities) have recently stipulated that they prefer students to have a specified number of ‘facilitating subjects.”  This is a rather short list of A level subjects – just maths, english literature, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and any modern foreign language count as facilitating subjects.  So, if you are considering applying to a “top” university you would do well to do at least one and maybe two or three of these subjects.
However, I would advise not getting too hung-up on facilitating subjects, especially if they don’t meet the “do I like it/am I good at it” criteria.  There are many A level subjects which are very interesting and may be more likely to suit you.  I happen to think that, for example, media studies, psychology and film studies are unfairly derided as “soft” subjects.  Several of these allegedly “soft” subjects are academically demanding, interesting and provide unique opportunities to study material you may never otherwise get.
Do your homework
For this reason, it is extremely important that you do your homework and know what you are studying. What is the subject ACTUALLY about?  Will you enjoy this? Will you be good at it?  Film studies is not all about making films, in fact it is quite closely aligned to english literature.  Drama and theatre studies is only around 50% acting, psychology is not about analysing dreams and philosophy is not a big two year debate on the meaning life.  Perhaps the most misunderstood of these is psychology which, at A level, is a very scientific subject very similar to biology and so well suited to students taking sciences and maths.
How many?
To impress a university entrance panel, take three or four subjects and do well.  Taking five, six or even more subjects does little to improve your chances.  Three (plus an AS level) is definitely much better than two, but after that there is a law of very diminishing returns.  Focus on getting AAA not BBBBB!!
Don’t chose your best GCSE scores if your mind was set
A common mistake is for students to pick their A levels before GCSE results day, only to find that they do slightly better in another subject at GCSE and make a late switch to this subject.  For example you pick English, French and maths because you like them and are good at them, then on GCSE results day, you get an A* in history and an A in French so you decide to history instead of French.  Don’t switch!  You chose French for all the right reasons and those reasons are still valid!
Good luck on results day!


Having written previously about why I fear Michael Gove’s A level reforms will disadvantage our young people and lower standards rather than raise them, I read with interest in today’s Guardian that Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary has committed to putting Tory A level reforms “on hold” should Labour win the next election.  Although he states that some elements of the new A levels will be retained, crucially, the AS level component will be retained.  It remains to be seen which other elements they would chose to keep, but I do hope that coursework, controlled assessment and multiple opportunities to take papers form some part of any new A level introduced under a Labour government.
In the article reference is made to the unhappiness of universities and schools and of how the Tory proposals would benefit candidates at independent schools.  Retention of the AS system wold be extremely valuable to students from state schools who wish to apply to university.  At present these candidates make more progress from GCSE to A level and so often apply to university with GCSE grades that do not reflect their true ability.  The AS level allows them to demonstrate this progress to the universities before they apply and so allows them to compete better with their peers at private schools who may well also have good AS levels, but who are statistically more likely to have better GCSE grades.
I will not here disclose my political persuasion and would say that it appears that some current Labour party policy is designed to be reactionary and made for the purposes of political point scoring.  However, when Hunt in his speech claims that “The Tories are turning the clock back on social mobility. David Cameron’s regressive policy to end the current AS-level qualification will close the window of opportunity for many young people wanting to go to university,”  This is not simply electioneering or opposition for the sake of opposition, on this matter, Labour have a point, and a good one.  Gove’s reforms are likely to damage the opportunities of state-educated pupils.


If you receive your A level results next week and haven’t done as well as you would have liked or as well as you had expected, there are many options available to you.  One of these options is to re-take some or all of your A levels again.  Whether or not you do this will depend on many different factors but it could be a shrewd move.
Your own individual circumstances will dictate whether or not you decide to do this, but here are some things to consider before you do:
Retaking can close doors as well as open them
Some universities and some degree programmes have a strict policy on retakers that is very simple – “we don’t accept candidate who have retaken their A levels.”  Some medical schools operate this way for example and you may find other competitive degrees with similarly inflexible policies.  Call them and speak to the relevant admissions tutors before you waste your time.
Can you stay motivated?
As your friends and peers go off to university or off on their gap years, can you stay motivated to do another year of A level, perhaps still at home, perhaps with students a year younger than you, learning the same material you have been learning for the last two years?  This is a very important question, if the honest answer is no, then retaking could well be a huge waste of time and possibly money.  You might be better to spend a year doing something more constructive such as working, volunteering or traveling.
Where will I do it?
You could approach your school or college and see if they will take you back – they might, but they possibly won’t and so you will need to make other arrangements.  You could:
  1. Self-study – sounds like a nice idea as you picture yourself pouring over the books in a coffee shop with few other cares in the world, but self-study is really only for the super-motivated.  You have to be phenomenally committed to focus for a whole year.  That year suddenly seems like a very long year indeed once the hullabaloo of results day has calmed down
  2. Find another college – there are many colleges with specialist one-year A level retake courses.  Several of these are in London, but there are more throughout the UK.  Do your research and find the one that suits you best
It could be the best thing you ever did
A year seems like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, it really is not.  If you know that you under-performed in your A levels and you believe you can do better, you have a great opportunity to go to a university that corresponds with your abilities and talents rather than one that corresponds with your results first time around.
For example if you achieve, let’s say BCC in your A levels, you’ve actually don’t quite well and you could, if you wanted to get into university either through clearing or some other means.  And this might well be what you want to do, if so – fantastic, go for it!  However, if you know for certain, deep-down in your heart-of-hearts that you didn’t work hard enough, that there was some external factor that affected your results and that those results are just not a reflection of your ability, then you should strongly consider re-takes.  If after a year those results are all one or even two grades higher, you are on to a good thing and that could change your life in a positive way forever.
On the other hand, if you know that BCC was the absolute best you could achieve and you put everything into it first time around, you need to consider whether another year is really going to make much difference.
Be realistic
If you have grades of DEU in your A levels, you will have to be exceptionally committed to your studies and extremely well taught to achieve AAA second time around.
Some universities welcome retake candidates because it shows a great commitment, that you are prepared to make sacrifices and that your education is important to you.  However, you need to be slightly more pragmatic and selective in your choices.
Have a focus and a reason for retaking
You are much more likely to be successful if you have a goal to work towards.  Do your research first, find a few universities that you want to go to, find out their entry requirements and consider whether or not you think you can achieve them.  Then focus on the grades you need to get in, this will be motivating as the year goes on and you hit a trough with your studies and revision.
Do your homework
If you have missed-out on university, or you have rejected a place at university because you believe you can get in somewhere else, you have another chance with retaking, but it will likely be your last chance.  For this reason, you need to do your research and be prepared.  Make sure you are not wasting your time.  Contact universities and departments in advance and have an open conversation with them.  Tell them why you under-performed, tell them why you think you can do better this time, ask them “will you consider my application?” Listen carefully to their response and only apply to universities you feel will consider you equally with first-time applicants and who have a positive response to your circumstances.
Exploit other avenues first
If you achieved results that are close to those you need for university, don’t rush to retake. For example, if you needed ABB and you got BBB.  Make sure you exploit all other avenues first.  Have you called the universities?  Have you looked at clearing?  Have you thought about taking a year out to get some more experience before applying again?  Only then should you decide to retake.
Retake everything or be selective?
Again, you need to chat to some university admissions departments before you make this decision.  It also depends on whether you missed out on all of your grades or just some of them.  You may also need only to retake odd units within the A level.  Whatever your personal circumstances here, you might want to consider not only retaking your A levels but also taking another A level or AS level entirely from scratch.  This will demonstrate a strong commitment to your education, it will be a strong statement of intent, the new material will keep you motivated and it may even give you other options when it comes to university applications.
A level results are not the be-all-and-end-all
It could be that gaining work-experience, or even just life-experience is more valuable than improving your A level grades.  Again, have a chat to some universities about your best options before you embark on a retake programme.
Good luck on results day!


According to the Times Higher Education, A level students are not prepared for results day.
Get ahead of the game and be ready!


If you are an A level student awaiting your results next week you may be starting to feel a little bit nervous. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a very nice, long, well-deserved holiday. Perhaps you’ve been volunteering, perhaps you’ve been working to save for that late-summer holiday or just to put some money in the bank ahead of university. Whatever, you will be all too aware that results day is next Thursday and the thought of this leaves a slight sinking feeling in your stomach.
Whatever your personal circumstances it is important for you to be in control on results day. You can’t control the numbers and letters that are printed on the page next week, but you can control your response to them.  Make sure you are ready and prepared for results day
What to do if:
You get the grades you need to go to the university of your choice
Jump in the air, hug your teacher, phone your mum and generally feel pleased with yourself! Remember to be respectful to others who may not have done as well as you but otherwise, your work is done and you can start thinking about arranging accommodation, student finance, reading lists and other things students need to do.
You got your grades, but you actually have decided you don’t want to go to the university you have chosen
This is a tricky one. You have technically entered into a contract with your firm or insurance choice university and to tell them now that you don’t want to go is not really fair. In theory you should withdraw from the system and reapply next year.  In practice you can always try and negotiate out of your ‘contract’ and get the university to release you into clearing.  But remember this is a big gamble! Because even if you have your eye on another place at another university, for a period you will have nothing at all, so be sure you are sure before going down this route.
I did better than expected
Congratulations! You are in a privileged position. You have got a place at university in the bag, but you also have the option to aim even higher through the UCAS adjustment system
Before you do this, make sure you are doing so for the right reasons. Is the ‘better’ university actually better for you or would you be better sticking with what you’ve got. Take your time, take advice, don’t rush in and don’t be taken in by the ‘more prestigious’ name of the university.
If your offer was CDD and you ended up with ABB – congratulations! You’ve vastly exceed expectations and adjustment is quite possibly for you. If your offer was AAB and you got AAA – again congratulations! Adjustment may still be for you, but think carefully and make an informed decision.
I just missed out on my offer
Hard lines, but don’t panic. The first thing to do is to contact your firm and insurance universities to see if there is anyway they can take you, even for a slightly different course. Be confident, be pragmatic and present yourself on the telephone as if you are in control of the situation. Tell them that you are happy to write a new personal statement or even to come in and visit (if you are). You might get lucky.  Even with lower grades, it is well worth a try.
I missed out by a long way/I’ve tried the step above and I’m in clearing
No problem!  Clearing presents a fantastic opportunity as long as you are efficient, focused and positive. Many students end up with an even better offer than the one they had before results day through the clearing system.
I really don’t want to go through clearing/there’s nothing on clearing that appeals to me/I’ve tried clearing but I just don’t want to go somewhere I’m not sure about
Good decision, you now have the opportunity to build your life in a different direction.
Why not take a year out for example? In the grand scheme of things, taking an extra year before university is no great hardship. Starting university just one year older than your peers will hardly be noticeable and it gives you the opportunity to do something you never thought you’d do and that you might never do again. On your year out, sometimes known as a gap-year, you could do one, some or all of these:
  • Retake your A levels
  • Get some work experience
  • Apply to uni again next year
  • Try something other than university – maybe it wasn’t right for you after all
  • Travel (STA can help as can many other organisations)
  • Do paid work
  • Volunteer (these people can help
  • Build your CV
  • Read – don’t underestimate the power and enjoyment of being well-read!
  • Get another qualification
  • Explore a hobby or talent more fully, you never know where it might take you



Above is a link to an article questioning the rationale of changing the A level system from the modular system we’ve had since 2000 (and which existed in parts before then) back to a system that prevailed for many years until the mid-1990s, of assessing A level students at the end of two years of study.
The article here suggests that the DFE did their research and found that ditching the AS level as an indicator of academic progress is justified by the accuracy of GCSE grades as a predictor of future success at degree level.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.   But, is this really the point?  My understanding was that the reforms proposed by Michael Gove and the coalition government were intended to make the A level “more rigorous” and return it to the “gold standard” it used to be (assuming you believe A levels no longer are a gold standard).
Do poorer results mean that standards have been raised?
One thing is certainly true, assuming that the assessment criteria remain the same, the marking is applied to the new system as it was to the old system and that the course content remains broadly the same (potentially big assumptions, but lets go with it for now), the number of students achieving the highest grades will go down under the new system.  This will then be heralded as a success in certain quarters.  There will be much talk of the “end of dumbing-down” and a “toughening up” of the A level system.  It will make an almost impossible job for university admissions departments a little bit easier as fewer students will make their offers and perhaps fewer students will go to university overall.  This will also be considered a good thing in certain circles, with derisory comments made about degree programmes referred to as “Mickey Mouse” in their content and worthiness.
However to consider what has happened here, is to consider the purpose of education.  One can define “a good education” in many different ways and there will be several different opinions as to what constitutes a “good” education.  Nevertheless, whatever, philosophically, you consider to be a good education, it is a fact that: in schools and colleges throughout the country, students are studying A levels, those A levels have a content, the content is taught to them by teachers and one measure of the success of those students is how well and how much of the content they have managed to learn and apply.
So, again applying the assumptions before regarding assessment criteria, marking standards and content, if students get lower marks in the their exams, one conclusion and certainly the one that I would draw, is that fewer students learned less material on their A level programme, they could express themselves less well and were less well able to apply knowledge learned during their programme of study.  Therefore we have succeeded in “reforming” an education system so that less is learned by fewer people.  In other words we claim to have “raised” standards because our results are worse and our young people don’t know and understand as much.  A somewhat backward conclusion wouldn’t you say so?
Now no doubt there will be noises made about “the cream rising to the top” but this is a flawed argument, yes, the very best students will still do well and they would be rewarded, but the existing system (although not perfect, I will admit) helps students with potential to fulfil that potential and be rewarded for their effort and their learning “journey”.
When you are 16, two years is a long time!
It is a long two years.  A levels are traditionally taught on two-year programmes when children are aged 16-18 and make the step into adulthood.  A very formative time.  At this age personalities, skill-sets, outlooks and motivations are still being developed.  Some very good students will be committed to a steady two-year learning journey.  However some equally good ones will not quite manage this and will delay preparation for exams until those exams are approaching at the end of their two years of study.  As a result, they won’t learn as much!
“IT’S THEIR OWN FAULT!” People will cry.  “They should have worked hard for two years not just the last three months!”  A good point and one with some merits, but an unrealistic one and one that does not recognise the needs, requirements and different learning styles of today’s young people.  Sixteen year olds need to learn how to learn, they need to make mistakes and learn from them, they need to hear something more than once and have a chance to try new things, including new ways of learning and studying.  The modular system allowed for this perfectly.  If you are tested on something once and get a certain result, then you are tested on it again at a later date and get a better result then a logical conclusion to me is that you have learned something!
My students are wonderful!
As an A level teacher, I see this all the time.  My students develop skills, they build their knowledge, they develop links and understandings between different areas of the A level syllabuses and indeed between their different subjects and quite often, by the time they take their final exam, they have learned an awful lot not only about biology (my subject) but about learning, about education (with a small ‘e’) and about themselves.  I fear that the removal of the modular system will remove much of this subtlety and the best “educated” will be deemed to be those who have crammed best for their final exam and who are good at doing exams rather than those who have learned the most or, dare I say it, those who are the best educated.
RIP January exams
When we lost the January exam session, we lost a big benefit of the modular system.  In my experience, re-sits in January were successful.  Students more often than not did better in January than they had the previous June.  Why?  They were motivated by their previous result, they learned more material, they matured as people they could see a value in working harder to help them on to the next stepping stone towards their ultimate goal.  For some it even established exactly what that goal was, it being absent previously.  The coalition reforms reduced this opportunity with the dropping of the January exam and the new system arriving in 2015 will remove it altogether.
By the way, the re-take system was not just for students who failed first time around.  Many of my students with a “low A” would re-sit papers in January to get a “higher A” that would set them up nicely for their next exam session.  I was always impressed that these young people were prepared to put more pressure on themselves in this way to help them achieve their ambitions.  Now all this pressure will come at the end of a two year programme.  One shot.  One chance.
When the changes come in, teachers, students and universities will adapt, but I fear that, ultimately, standards will fall, not rise and this will be Gove’s legacy to the A level system.

Cambridge University Summer School (2013)

A great example of a summer well used to explore university life!


Last summer, I went to Cambridge University for a summer school from 12th-16th August.

When applying for the Sutton Trust summer schools, I found that Durham and Cambridge were the universities which offered the sort of courses that I was the most interested in. I’ve never been to Durham before. I had been to Cambridge before (the shadowing scheme in February of that year) but loved it so much that I really wanted to go back. So, I applied for Biological Sciences at Cambridge.

The five days I spent at Cambridge were absolutely amazing. I learnt so much, not just from our lecturer/mentor/supervisor (not sure what to call him – he asked us to call him Paul), but also from the friends I made.

We had breakfast at 7.30am everyday and activities for the day began at 8.30am. We learnt about enantiomers and 3D films, zoology, physiology, drugs and enzymes…

View original post 1,030 more words

Comment and advice on UK education