Higher Education and Careers Blog: Education in Flux

Mr Gibbs' Higher Education and Careers Blog: Education in Flux

I recently attended a two-day Higher Education convention in Birmingham, a land of hidden beauty, raffish charm and, incidentally, my spiritual home. 

The experience was - somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, to some - nowhere near as dull as my initial description suggests.  This two-day event was a curious paradox: a genuinely interesting convention.  I have visited others that have been deathly dull.  This one was not.

Firstly, it turns out that the Hilton Metropole does actually exist.  I was suspicious at first, when I saw the invite, and presumed that the organisers had got things wrong.  Surely we would be at the Dog and Duck on the Hagley Road or at The Belfry, which needs such events because it no longer hosts The Ryder Cup.  But, believe it or not, Birmingham does actually have a Hilton hotel and it is perched beside the slightly less salubrious M42, next door to the NEC.  This was the first revelation.

Suffice to say that I couldn't really afford to reside at the Hilton and so I stayed overnight with my mother instead, thereby reverting back to being a student again, rather like Ronnie Corbett's character Timothy Lumsden in the eighties sitcom Sorry, which established the perfect context for the convention itself because I could clearly see things afresh from a student's perspective and still had the feeling that I wanted to leave home.

At the conference, there were a few core messages.  It appears that we are operating in an era where there are fewer eighteen to twenty-one year olds as a proportion of the total population, which should, in theory, make my job a lot easier.  Students are being told to be slightly more ambitious in that they are hugely valuable to the universities themselves. Universities are very much open for business because they need the revenue.  Indeed, we were told that they can expect to be 'love-bombed' by universities because they are so precious. This appears to be a good thing.

However, the slight problem is that there is so much proposed change on the horizon, so much so that we, as educators and professionals, are unsure of how things will progress next year and beyond. 

Some universities are sceptical about the rise in popularity of BTEC qualifications, whereas others welcome them as part of a mixed portfolio that contains A Levels and/or the Pre-U too.  The emphasis here appeared to be on the Russell Group of universities and Oxford and Cambridge preferring strong applications from those who have a decent hoard of facilitating A Levels or Pre-U qualifications, subjects such as English Literature, Chemistry and Mathematics.

Yet the overwhelming message was that, because we live in a time of change, all applications were taken equally seriously as long as the application was logical and met the entrance requirements, be they grades based or points based.

Overall, the thing that really got me was the lack of a leading political voice at the convention.  There is a great deal of change on the horizon in terms of curriculum reform and exam boards and other leading figures were keen to stress that A Levels and AS Levels would soon be decoupled and exist only as standalone qualifications with one exam board even suggesting that they may offer progress tests for those, the majority, studying the two year standalone A Level. 

It will be linear, it with be more academically rigorous and, crucially, it appears that the tariff for an AS level will be reduced to become 40% of an A Level for UCAS purposes in future years, after these new A Levels are introduced for first teaching in September 2015.

The problem, for us and for the universities, is that we are therefore about to enter a period of great flux.  Schools will only see the new draft specifications in June 2014 and, given that we are supposed to start teaching them in June 2015, there is very little time to feed back our thoughts to the leading figures of the age. 

Perhaps we should do so, sooner rather than later.

It seemed to me the general feeling was that, now that January re-sits are a thing of the past, the current AS and A2 system works well.  Certainly, Cambridge, for example, may great use of the AS results and data as the key indicator of how a student will fare at degree level. 

Their admissions personnel take great stock of a candidate's AS percentage scores and, with that in mind, the whole sector seems to be a little concerned about reverting to a system where internally graded papers are the only clear indicator of ability in tandem with GCSE or IGCSE grades. 

It has been over ten years since the university system operated without AS grades, and this seems to frighten the universities themselves, just a little.

I also learned a little more about MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and I have yet to discuss how Bede's could make use of such advances in technology. Some of our most able students are already taking these internet courses, provided by universities such as East Anglia, Edinburgh and Harvard, in addition to acquiring useful work experience, and I am simply thinking that Bede's teachers and students could possibly, in the future, design their own BOOCS (Bede's Open Online Courses) in order to advertise how teaching and learning at the school has changed since our partnership with King's.

I think this would be an exciting prospect, but it may be that our students prefer the open approach and linking in with the universities themselves, so I will hold fire on that one.

There was, suffice to say, much to digest.  What did I learn?  Well, in a time of constant flux and change, I learned that the devil is in the detail when it comes to university application. Small print sits alongside every single set of target grades required for every single university course. Be aware of this in a time of great change. 

Be sure that you are studying exactly the right blend of subjects for your course.  Start looking at this before you make your GCSE course choices if you can, certainly before you set out on A Level study.

The small print is becoming more and more important because students are now studying such a different range of qualifications, soon to be complicated by curriculum change, so pay careful attention to the rubric.

Importantly, I also learned that there are thousands of very dedicated staff out there, trying to make our education system work for your children.  This, I must say, amid all the usual bluff and nonsense that is out there with regard to the politics of education, was the most reassuring thing about the conference. 

The nature of the qualifications may change, technology may change, but the dedication of university staff across the country, at some of the leading centres for education in the world, does not change. 

They, and we, simply want what's best for your children.

Mr Gibbs

Director of Higher Education and Careers