Tag Archives: UK A level

A MONTH OF SUMMER LEFT TO BUILD YOUR UCAS APPLICATION

If you are a year 12 student about to move into year 13 you will probably be making a UCAS application to universities in the Autumn once you get back to your school or college. You will therefore soon be nailing down your final choice of five universities and familiarizing yourself with the UCAS online ‘apply system’ (https://www.ucas.com/ucas/undergraduate/apply-and-track).

 

Now we are at the end of July, of next year’s university applicants will have had at least a week and possibly as much as a month or more since the end of the last school term. With a month or so to go before the start of their final academic year before university, it is time to start thinking about how to productively spend the rest of the summer in order to have the best possible chance of making a strong university application.

 

Time to think: what can I do to help support my application and to add to my personal statement. Think about:

 

  1. Work Experience – are you intending to apply for a degree that will lead you to a specific career? If so, have you ever had any experience of that career? If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, architect or accountant – can you get some experience in this field during August and throughout the academic year? I bet you can!
  2. Go and visit – the university or department you want to go to may have an open day in the next month or so (find out at http://www.opendays.com/) but even if they don’t this is a great time to go and visit the university or even just the town or city where you will be living.
  3. Read and research – whatever you want to study at university, you need to be able to convince an admissions tutor that you are able to study that subject at undergraduate level. You will need more than just your A level/IB/Higher (or whatever) knowledge to do this convincingly. Start reading a broadsheet newspaper everyday, subscribe to a popular journal such as The Economist, The New Scientist or The Student BMJ and pick up some back issues from your local library or online. What about a book or two in the field you want to study? Use google to recommend some popular literature and read for an hour or so a day. You’ll learn a huge amount about your subject to write about or discuss at interview and it will give you a real confidence boost before you make your application.

 

The final deadlines may feel a long way off, but they will be upon us very soon:

15 October 2015 – Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Dentistry

15 January 2016 – All other applications

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KNOW YOUR IMPACT AS A TEACHER

At the beginning of this academic year I led a training event for the whole teaching staff.  It was a positive and upbeat meeting with the team in positive spirits following some great A level and GCSE results.

 

I decided to focus the session on the teachers themselves to ensure they each felt a part if the success of the College as a whole.  I wanted teachers to know that they make a difference and that their contribution was valued.  I also wanted to challenge some old attitudes and so focused the day on three themes:
  • The impact of the teacher in the classroom
  • No labels
  • Remove expectations
The impact of the teacher
Looking at the impact of the teacher allowed me to discuss the research of John Hattie.  As a starting point to presenting his research, I looked at his own feedback on the importance of the teacher in the classroom.

 

The teacher can have a huge positive impact on learning (although also a negative one if teaching is not good).  Hattie presents this idea as “know thy impact.”  I wanted the teachers to make sure they understood their importance, but also that they take responsibility for the learning in the classroom.  This animation which illustrates (literally!) Hattie’s eight ‘mindframes’ was a great aid to the introduction of this idea.

 

No labels
The idea of not labelling students is not a new one.  There is some debate as to what constitutes a label.  Does setting or streaming in schools apply labels to the students inadvertently for example?  But this was not the focus of my session.  Essentially this session was about Assessment For Learning.

 

AFL is also nothing new, but how much do teachers actually do it on a day-to-day basis?   I know that especially in sixth form teaching there can be a tendency to give a student a grade for a piece of work and then offer no further feedback to the student.  The grade then becomes a label.  For some students who only “need a B to go to university” if they get their B grade awarded repeatedly by the teacher, they have little incentive to improve and have reached a self-imposed ceiling that the teacher is doing nothing to remove.  Equally, there is nothing more demoralising for an A level student who feels they are working hard than to repeatedly receive no feedback other than a single letter “D” “E” or maybe “U” on every piece of work.

 

Here is Paul Black discussing AFL and the difference between routine feedback and “high-stakes” end-of-school, summative assessment.

 

 

Remove expectations
Related to labelling and and appropriate assessment, this is different to raising expectations.  Every teacher should have high expectations for every student.  By remove expectations, I don’t mean “expect nothing”, I mean “expect anything!”  Let’s imagine every learner has the capacity to learn more and to always improve.  I once had the privilege to meet one of my heros – Carl Lewis.  During the talk he was giving he made the remark “not everyone can be the fastest, but everyone can get faster.”  This makes perfect sense in education too.  Expect that every student, no matter what their current level, can always get better.

 

Zimbardo (he of the famous and controversial prison experiment), here discusses research carried out when teachers are given false “high expectations” of a group of students.  They inadvertently give preferential treatment to that group and the group in turn improve at a faster rate than those the teachers are told to have ‘low expectations” of.  There is no criticism of the teachers, just an interesting observation on how students’ expectations of themselves and teachers’ expectations of learners can influence the quality of learning.

 

IS IT TIME TO SCRAP GCSES?

In his article in the guardian on Friday http://gu.com/p/4xxbm, Peter Wilby made a good case for the abolition of the GCSE as a qualification in England and it has to be said he makes a compelling case.  Before I go further, let me say that I largely agree with everything he writes.  The GCSE is no longer fit for purpose, mainly because it no longer has an obvious purpose!
As Wilby discusses, once upon-a-time, when pupils left school at age 16 and only 10% or so of those leavers went on to study A levels, there was a clear need for a qualification that assessed the general skills and academic achievements of the school leaving population.  Employers had to be able to discern between applicants for jobs and apprenticeships.  I believe that GCSEs did this well, especially within the grade boundaries A (or later A*) to C.
However, as the number of pupils who remain in education rose and rose over the years to a point in time now, where post 16 education is compulsory, the need for a stand-alone, high-risk qualification at 16 seems entirely unnecessary.  Surely if we were designing the education system from scratch to include compulsory education to 18 we wouldn’t stick in a huge exam session just two years prior to this.  What would be the purpose?  Yes students should have their progress assessed at this point, but not in this way and why would 16 be more important than 15 or 17 on the road to whatever final qualification the individual gains at 18.  Furthermore, increasingly I find through my own teaching that the GCSE has ceased to be a particularly good preparation for A level.  Those who have done GCSE sciences don’t seem to have a good grasp of some fundamental material that would allow them to access the A level material in my subject (biology).
I happen to believe that the university system in England and the A levels that allow entry to it should be retained and have many strong features.  It would be on the back of these two institutions that I would build our education system.  Wilby wrote about removing the “full stop” of the GCSE and replacing it with a “semi-colon.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Why not a series of semi-colons throughout ones educational experience until one is ready to leave the system.
It would be easy to imagine a system in which the educational experience from the age of 11 (or 10, or 12 or 14 or whatever age we decide it is more appropriate) that, year on year, gives our young people a deeper and narrower educational experience leading up to university entrance and incorporating the A level.  Students should be assessed regularly and should have to achieve a minimum standard in order to progress to the next level, but we would no longer have the “this is the most important thing you will ever do” exams at age 16.  There should also be a range of attractive, useful options for students to leave this system in order to pursue other equally valid, perhaps broader, perhaps more vocational routes.  In fact I wish there were more of these at present in order that more pupils had more opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Another brave move would be to remove the age-based cohort system altogether and to have pupils progress through the educational system at a rate that best suits them and so that they reach the next level when they are ready, not just because they reach a certain age.  For a refreshing take on this and other matters, take a look at Ken Robinson’s RSA animate lecture http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Why shouldn’t a student be elevated through the system if they are good enough?  This happens in the work place and in almost all other areas of life.  The best candidates in the work-place are promoted over the less good ones and their age or number of years at the company is usually not a factor.
Under the last Labour government there was a move towards a 14-19 agenda, but the GCSE was retained – it will be a brave government that remove it.  14-19 makes sense.  There are some LEAs in England that operate a “middle/upper school” system so that children move schools at year 9 (age 13/14), in fact I briefly taught in an excellent one – King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, the thing that may save the GCSE in the end could be simply a matter of practicalities and infrastructure.  The ever-complex system of schooling in England (comprehensives, grammars, free schools, academies, independent schools, FE colleges, middle schools, upper schools, public schools etc etc) means that it suits the running of our educational establishments to retain the status quo.  If we remove the GCSE, and education is compulsory until 18, why have a school that says goodbye to its pupils at 16?  But those schools exist and in great numbers.  They don’t have space to expand and we certainly can’t close them down.  Should their pupils not have anything to show for their five years at their high school?  GCSEs still make sense to a degree in this context.
So, as a product of the GCSE system (2A*, 6A, 1B in 1995 if you were wondering – fairly humble by today’s standards), I would have to conclude that they are probably here to stay unless a government of the future is prepared to spend a lot of time and money coming up with something better and then implementing it in the face of waves of objection, vested interest and unhappiness.  That would be a brave government indeed.

ADVICE ON CHOOSING YOUR A LEVEL SUBJECTS

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 http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/ (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!

LABOUR OPPOSE TORY A LEVEL REFORMS

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 http://gu.com/p/4vk8p 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.

A LEVEL RETAKES – YES OR NO?

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!

A LEVEL RESULTS DAY OPTIONS – BE READY FOR YOUR RESULTS

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 http://wp.me/p4RGIw-k
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 http://wp.me/p4RGIw-i
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. http://wp.me/s4RGIw-clearing
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 http://www.statravel.co.uk/gap-year-travel.htm as can many other organisations)
  • Do paid work
  • Volunteer (these people can help http://www.frontier.ac.uk/)
  • 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