A Response: ‘Welsh Uni ‘Dumb-Down’ Row as Students Win Degree Course Spots with Two E Grades’

BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES!

But seriously… BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES! Because I’ve stumbled upon the provocatively titled ‘Welsh uni ‘dumb-down’ row as students win degree course spots with two E grades‘ article on WalesOnline…

So what does it say?

‘The strength of Welsh degrees has been called into question after figures revealed universities in Wales are accepting students who were close to failing their exams.

Okay.

Data obtained by WalesOnline shows students are winning places on university degree courses with the equivalent of just two E grades at A-level. Aberystwyth University, Swansea Metropolitan and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David all accepted students with 80 tariff points – two A-level passes – or less in September 2012.

Hmm, and then we head straight into…

Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns said the revelations ‘make a mockery of entry requirements’ and there was ‘a firm expectation” that university places should be awarded on merit. ‘This sends out a message that elements of the Welsh higher education sector have bargain-basement entry requirements, are dumbing-down and don’t appreciate the value of academic rigour,’ she added.

Which again is arguably fair enough – we move from supposed fact to a statement by someone we assume knows a great deal about education, as she is the Shadow Education Minister after all…

And then we hear from Ms Burns, ‘Conservative AM for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire’ who says:

‘These revelations make a mockery of university entry requirements,’ she said. ‘To contend with the pressures of sustaining a three or four-year university course, a student should be able to demonstrate that a certain level of attainment has been reached, evidenced by A-level grades. […] It does seem unfair that a student could leave school with almost no A-levels at all and still gain a place at a Welsh university. This sends out a message that elements of the Welsh higher education sector have bargain-basement entry requirements, are dumbing down and don’t appreciate the value of academic rigour. […] ‘While every student should have the opportunity to apply to university, there is a firm expectation that places should be awarded on merit and a certain standard of achievement.’

But wait, lets not be so keen, because approximately halfway down the article we find…

A spokesman for Aberystwyth said the university offers a number of routes into higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and is committed to the Welsh Government’s widening participation and lifelong learning agendas. He added: ‘In these cases, factors other than qualifications which carry Ucas points are taken into consideration – e.g. the successful completion of a higher education access course or the Aberystwyth University Summer University, a six-week residential course designed specifically for young people from disadvantaged, particularly Community First backgrounds. […] Applications are considered on a case-by-case basis. Relevant experience and professional background are taken into consideration for mature students who may lack conventional academic qualifications.’

So it’s only after we scroll halfway down the page do we hear anything from a primary source. This doesn’t mean that what they say is necessarily true because it’s primary, but it does seem a little cut-throat to move into political opinions before delivering potential facts…

But in actuality I’m not really that concerned about the structure of the article, this is the press after all, they like their big catchy headlines, their sloppy slogans and controversial one-liners. I’m here to argue against the idea that because you have bad A-Levels you should be denied entry to university, and that intelligence and ability is determined by prior school grades. Why? Well, lets start with some home truths…

I don’t have the best A-Level grades. They’re not bad, but they’re not that good either – and when I went all the way to Aberystwyth for an open day I was a little worried as to how I’d tally up. Was I still good enough to study there? I had the points at least, and a good grade in English Literature – there was no reason for them to say no. I had a chat with a lady from the English Department which seemed to last over an hour about my writing, about the institution, the tutors, the modules… and she seemed more than happy with me. I felt I’d made a good impression, and felt a little better about my chances.

I was accepted, and three years later I walked out with a First. My crappy A-Level grades had secured me a place and I’d made the most of it, but that didn’t stop me thinking about what might have happened if I hadn’t have been accepted. If, perhaps, I’d failed my A-level in Critical Thinking completely and it had knocked down my UCAS points. What if I’d failed in everything else bar English Literature? Would they have taken me on then? And also, in turn, what if I had done better in school? If I had achieved A*’s across the board would I have been able to get into Oxford or Cambridge? I’d already been on a higher-education summer school programme as a ‘potential Oxbridge candidate’ (though I found the thing rather hilarious – my grades were already slipping by that point, so I had no chance), would that have helped my chances? To what extent was this all my fault?

I realise now that, though these are all quite fair questions to ask, it was unfair to put myself under such pressure. Whilst I had control over some aspects of my education I did not have control over all of them. The high school I attended when young was one of the worst in the area, perhaps even in Britain. It had a reputation for being rough and unruly which was explored (though also somewhat exaggerated) in Gene Simmon’s, ‘Rock School’, during the filming of which I was still a student there. I can’t say that the school was particularly awful – as an institution is the sum of its parts – but I think it’s safe to say that there were a large number of kids that didn’t want to be there/of teachers that didn’t want to be there or were incapable of controlling classes/of teachers that had been worn down by the unruly students there and had simply resorted to handing out task sheets without going through them, and often spent the rest of the lesson sat at the desks calming any commotion/of administrative staff that seemed incredibly incapable of keeping records/certificates/exam results and essays. The school was not wholly to blame for my grades (that I am sure of) but I am sure these factors played a part in the growing lack of enthusiasm I had for my education in the years I spent there.

I can recall a number of incidents. Let’s go through them.

One of our English teachers had the great idea of getting different members of the class to read as different characters from Priestly’s ‘An Inspector Calls’. It really was a good idea, and seemed to keep the class quite quiet and on track. It was also a great deal better than trying to read the text on your own in class, as, inevitably someone would kick up a fuss and the environment would end up too noisy to read in. I remember wanting to read for a certain character in the play, so, when the teacher asked who would like to read for such-and-such I stuck my hand up along with some others. Someone else got the part but I was content, that was, until a girl in the corner struck up a fuss about wanting to be that certain character. I’d had many classes with the girl in question and she often sat in the corners of rooms with her friends – a group of four or five girls – who would play with make-up and shout out in class. She wasn’t a trouble maker as such, but someone who could (if she chose to do so) could disrupt the teacher for long periods of time and kick up a fuss that would render a number of the other members of the class unteachable. She wanted to be that character in the play.

At the time I could understand why the teacher did what he did but it didn’t make it any easier for me. He took the part of the play he had just given to some other student in the room to the boisterous girl in the corner so that she wouldn’t kick up a fuss. It makes sense in a way, but I remember being absolutely furious. It seemed to me, at that time, an action that summed up my experience of the modern comprehensive school system; give the bad kids what they want so they shut-up. There were additional rules too, like to try and avoid expelling students from school (which, I had a feeling had something to do with the school attempting to keep up appearances – the less expelled students on record, the better the school might be said to be doing), to avoid sending students outside the class (because they then risked disrupting other classes), to reward ‘good behaviour’ with treats and trinkets (good behaviour having an extended definition – in order to be good you must first be bad i.e. be sent out of the class and then not disrupt other classes or move from outside the room, if this was achieved it was seen as a good action and the student was often rewarded with attention, praise, or parts in plays).

I like to think I put up with this as much as I could, but I also think I could have been a little more patient. Additionally, some of the teachers were very helpful – they’d give us an appreciative nod every so often when they’d noticed we’d done all the work or were sitting quietly, and you’d get the occasional enthusiastic comment – but most of the time the teachers were too busy dealing with the unruly kids to really give anyone else the time of day. Nevertheless, at some point I gave up. I can’t remember when exactly, but I begun leaving classes and opting instead to read at the library. That was one of the best things about Kirkley actually, the fact that there was hardly anyone in the library. So I’d often sit by myself at a table and read up on the topic I was meant to be studying, but also around those areas – historical contexts, mathematical concepts, that sort of thing. The librarian never seemed to say anything. Learning slowly became self-directed.

Eventually some teachers noticed my absence and I found myself dealing with the Head of English alongside other Heads of Things. I’d give them the reasons as to why I was missing classes. They’d insisted I had to return to my classes. I wouldn’t go to my next class, and then the cycle would continue. Then other kids started doing it. Four or five of us would head to the library and read or peruse the internet. I’ll admit that some of them weren’t skipping classes to learn on their own and were happier playing browser games on the computers but it seemed better than sitting in a class watching chaos unfold… it was in that period of self-directed learning that I realised I loved literature more than any of my other subjects and begun reading more widely. When it came to choosing A-Levels I knew what I wanted to do: English Literature, but of course, you can’t just do one A-Level you have to do three.

Which brings me to my second point (the first being that your school does, in many ways, affect your academic potential/outcome), the choosing of three A-Levels has the potential to disrupt as well as to empower students. I chose English Lit, and reluctantly chose History and English Language. I enjoyed all of these subjects but History and Language was dwarfed by my interest in Literature. I was initially content until I learnt that the method of teaching for A-Level was not so different from GCSE. We were still mainly taught, and the curriculum was nowhere near as open as I’d hoped. In History we were not to study anything Roman or Greek, it was suggested that we avoid the Medieval period, and our options essentially extended to anything past World War I – except maybe the French Revolution, but that was pretty much the only exception. So we had the option of concentrating on World War I, II, the Cold War, the Chartist Movement, French Revolution… none of which I was particularly interested in. In English Language things seemed a little more open but we still had to work from the old Western Canon whereas I was more interested in writing on ‘Only Revolutions’ by Danielewski… I became more cut off from these subjects, and I think it was mere chance (alongside some amazing teachers) that I found the Literature curriculum exciting. So, like any kid, I put more work into those things I enjoyed than those I didn’t.

What also wasn’t very helpful was that one of my English Language teachers was the same teacher I’d had previously for English Literature lessons at GCSE who would hand out crossword puzzles, task sheets and make us do cut-and-stick exercises that seemed incredibly patronising considering our age at the time. She would have made a good primary school teacher, but, in my opinion, she was in no way suited to teacher older children. My History lessons were interrupted half-way through the A-Level when our class was told we’d be studying with another group at another school. There I found myself arguing that ‘to what extent was Gorbachev the architect of his own downfall?’ Which I thought a stupid question at the time, but one that my new history teacher insisted I attempt…

Then there was the great grade crash that seemed to affect a number of us at the end of our AS or A2 (I forget which). Basically, around half the class achieved a U in the Modern Novel topic. No-one quite understood how it had happened. It hadn’t affected all of us, as some of the other students had passed, though they too had achieved grades lower than expected. I remember looking at my grade sheet, and it said something like AUA, which, after retakes became AAA. the same happened in History: AUA, which became ABA. Either I had really messed up, or someone else had really messed up. The retakes meant I was essentially barred from the higher universities at any rate, and our UCAS applications had already gone through – mine with marks ‘to be confirmed’. No wonder only two universities got back to me, eh?

I still think that perhaps it was wrong to react in the way that I did. I was in no way suited at that time for self-directed learning. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I loved it, even… and it certainly geared me up for the style of learning you’re thrown into at university, but maybe I would have achieved better grades if I had concentrated more. If I had simply kept my head down. Though, I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had. Of that I’m almost  certain.

Passion is the strongest factor in ability. Talent helps, certainly, but all those cool words like dedication, patience, interest, determination – I think all of those come with passion. When I went to Aberystwyth for that open day I thought (perhaps wrongly at that time) that I had to prove myself to get in, that I had to apologise and prove myself more than capable of achieving the grades people thought or hoped I would achieve. I think even had I failed all of my subjects I would have tried – because I enjoyed it, I wanted to learn more about it.

So what was my high school experience? What did I think of those years that, at the time, essentially determined my academic outcome? They weren’t bad, but in regards to education they were appalling. I was too young to know what I actually wanted and yet told to choose subjects that would determine my academic career, I was in an environment that often sought to further itself above its students, that was primarily concerned with its own reputation than exploring/furthering the academic potential of its own pupils, and the horror of it all was I had no way to escape this. My family had no money to move, or provide me with transportation to a school in another catchment area, They could never have afforded to send me to a private school, and in my current school I had no power to alter the curriculum or suggest amendments, and though I was often heard, and many teachers seemed to agree with my attempts to change things, they were essentially over encumbered by bureaucracy.

And this is where the article falls flat. it makes the bold assumption that everyone started running when the pistol was fired and that there was no barging, no tripping, no cheating or bribing along the way. Whilst a students A-Level results are a good indication of their academic potential, it is in no way a necessarily fair and accurate representation of their academic history, or of their passions or of their potential. It should be used as a guide, not as a measure.

Anyway, the word count is now at 2934, and I think I’ve gone on long enough… apologies for the length of this post, the current education system, the political party currently in governance of Britain, and mis-informed journalists just get on the wrong side of me.

Also, there’s also a reason why this video has over nine-million views…

And this one is somewhat relevant…

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2 thoughts on “A Response: ‘Welsh Uni ‘Dumb-Down’ Row as Students Win Degree Course Spots with Two E Grades’”

  1. Very interesting post, Hayden. The (faux) outrage in the reactions to the ‘revelations’ about entry requirements would only begin to be valid if students with better A-level grades are being denied places at university by those students being given a 2-Es-y ride. There is no indication in that article that this is the case – indeed we are told “figures show universities in Wales still had hundreds of vacancies – equating to thousands of pounds in lost tuition fees – several weeks into the autumn term.” The article makes no effort to determine whether students accepted with poor A-level grades got poor degrees, whether they dropped out, failed or got Firsts – and without such a determination the criticisms are meaningless.

    The irony is, that (at least until the 1980s) Oxford and Cambridge used to offer students places on the strength of getting 2 Es at A-level. (The Oxbridge types dominating in politics and the media have clearly forgotten such times, judging by the reactions quoted.) Students could apply (with their teachers having nothing to go on except predicted grades – no AS-Levels in those days) by sitting Entrance Exams in their 4th term of A-level and those who impressed were called up for interviews, which were (quoting wikipedia) “used to check whether the course is well suited to the applicant’s interests and aptitudes and to look for evidence of self-motivation, independent thinking, academic potential and ability to learn through the tutorial system.” Were students to be offered a place on the strength of their Entrance Exam and interview, they only needed the minimum matricultion requirement of 2 passes at A-level (grade E or above) to get in. Your experience of that Aber open day sounds like a less formal variant of the same thing.

    Quote: “Whilst a students A-Level results are a good indication of their academic potential, it is in no way a necessarily fair and accurate representation of their academic history”. Surely what you’ve been saying (and doing so with passion and perceptiveness) is quite the opposite: Whilst a student’s A-Level results are a good indication of their academic history they may be a very poor indication of their academic potential. You are, after all, living proof….

  2. My brother only needed two E’s for his university place, and that was at the Royal Academy of Music, which I think is supposed to be one of the most highly regarded music colleges in the world (Not to boast, or anything :P) He got more than two E’s, but he didn’t get top grades at A level. Four years later, guess what? He got a first. Grades are in no way indicative of a person’s talent or intelligence and I can’t believe people in a position of power would be so blind to that…you raise some interesting points here, and more people should listen because sadly I think your experiences are far from unique.

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