Tuesday, 15 February 2011
You want fair access to universities? - Train the teachers.
1) Train teachers in how to teach A-levels - there's a reason that 'A' stands for 'Advanced'. There is an emphasis on analysis and evaluation skills that students need to be specifically taught. They are not techniques that can simply be taught through the same spoon-feeding many teachers end up doing for GCSEs. They need to be explained, then practiced again and again by the students to make them repeatable, particularly on the vaguer A2 questions, where students have to work out what parts of their subject 'tool-box' to use. In my experience those who are excellent GCSE teachers may think they don't need to learn more about teaching to teach A-level.
2) Measure A-level results and act on them - what gets measured gets managed, and given the emphasis on GCSE results to compare schools it is no surprise that management effort and concentration, and therefore teacher effort and concentration, is on GCSEs. This is sometimes at the expense of A-level teaching and sometimes at the expense of close scrutiny of A-level performance. I've seen great GCSE teachers take 3 weeks to mark A-level work if at all because it comes last on their priority list. I have no doubts about the importance of concentrating on GCSE results for the lower ability students to help them get the 5 good GCSEs that can get them a foothold in the workplace. But if you want to be engines of real social mobility, regardless of your political and educational ideology, you cannot get a poor student into the best university without good A-levels. By saying that students from poor performing schools can get in with lower grades you are saying that inadequate A-level teaching and focus is OK because you will socially engineer equality of outcome. Is that really the best long term solution?
3) Train teachers in helping students select A-levels - one of the great things about many comprehensive schools is that they offer, under the same roof, courses that suit all types of student. So, for those students who have a more vocational bent there are BTEC courses, and for those with a very academic focus there are the 'traditional' A-levels such as French, History and Maths. The BTEC courses have been a major factor in widening participation, allowing students to study courses in school that they are interested in and follow them through into higher education. But in the middle of vocational and 'traditional A-level courses' are those which the major red-brick universities, on whose back OFFA is climbing, see as falling too much in the middle. Universities such as Cambridge and LSE publish a list of these courses (which include A-levels in business studies, ICT and media studies for instance) which they do not regard as adequate preparation for universities. Other universities do not publish these lists but may be about to be forced to publish them. Whether or not you agree with this categorisation of A-levels, it exists, and every teacher (or at least every Year 11 tutor and Year Head and those in charge of sixth form) should know them. Never again should student not find out until their UCAS applications are rejected that their choice of A-levels automatically disqualified them from the universities they aspired to.
4) Train teachers in helping with UCAS applications - there is no reason why every teacher involved with sixth formers shouldn't be better trained in what makes a good UCAS application great. Teachers are involved all the time with writing subject references for the pupils, writing the actual UCAS references for the pupils and helping with personal statements. I would imagine that in most state schools they do this without any training. Given UCAS is a competitive process, isn't this letting their students down?
At the end of the day, there are loads of ideas for government intervention to try and solve the problem of inequality of access to universities. But why not try and offer equality of opportunity for students before you settle for equality of outcome. You can only, after all, get equality of outcome by offering inequality of opportunity (Oh, sorry, you go to a good school so your application doesn't get decided on merit).
Surely the teaching unions wouldn't argue against training their members to help students achieve their aspirations. Wouldn't they?