University Access: Not just a question of street cred (whatever that is)

The problem today is the A level is so dumbed down that for many employers A levels obtained since 1990 aren’t worth the paper there [sic] written on.

The above is a comment following a Telegraph piece on education. I took not only A-levels, but GCSEs post-1990. I have to say, I’m pretty sure the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re” was covered way before we progressed to the higher qualification. But anyhow, what do I know? Perhaps it’s only “your” and “you’re” that employers worry about.

Anyhow, the Telegraph piece raises the possibility of funding changes which restrict state school pupils to taking only 3 A-levels. I went to a state school and took 3 A-levels (okay, I took General Studies as well. And I would count that, but what’s the point? No bugger else will). 3 A-levels were enough to get me a place at Oxford University, but things were different in 1993. It’s way more competitive now. Back then 3 good A-levels were still relatively well-respected; nowadays it’s assumed you could do them blindfold, with your arms tied behind your back, dangling over a pit of vipers. And they’d still be too easy. The young don’t know they’re born (that’s probably a question in A2 biology: Were you born? And I imagine half of them get it wrong).

When I first read about the 3 A-levels restriction for state schools I thought “oh, it’s one of those things that gets leaked but never happens, so that what does happen doesn’t look as bad”. Since then, conversations I’ve had with teachers have suggested that it’s far more likely than I thought. It’s just a question of money. The DfE might say “there will be nothing to stop schools and colleges from entering outstanding pupils for more than three A-levels”. But it’s in words like “outstanding” that you start to see the get-out clause they’re seeking. Private school pupils won’t have to be outstanding to get choice, breadth and the freedom to change their minds.

Does this matter if (and it’s a big if) education spending needs to be cut? I think it has to, given the demands made on universities to widen participation, and the pressures that young people are under when competing for jobs. Given the range of entry-level posts which now demand a “good” degree from a “good” institution as a means of weeding out candidates, I don’t think it’s possible to see this as an issue that purely concerns the academic elite. State school pupils – particularly those who don’t come from backgrounds where their studies will  be supported on an informal basis – will see their options and future choices becoming increasingly limited, regardless of their own capabilities.

Admissions tutors might stick to 3 A-level offers, but young people whose parents could pay for their education will have the capacity to tailor their choices to different paths. They will be able – even more so than the currently are – to demonstrate breadth of knowledge in a formal context. Added extras – such as EPQs – will be open to them in ways they may not be for others. You could argue that these are luxuries and that the state should not foot the bill. But either there is a commitment for education to tap into talent and enable social mobility or there isn’t. How can we expect the majority of young people to compete on an uneven playing field and then, if they’re very, very lucky, foot a massive bill for having their economic usefulness harvested at the end? (Isn’t this how academics are being told to make universities work?)

One might argue that a harsher system gets rid of “mickey mouse” degrees. I have not, however, heard anyone lay into the way in which “properly academic” degrees are completely wasted on over-privileged knobs who don’t ever value or use the learning they’re offered. Why should the state still be partially funding finishing schools for the children of the rich? As an undergraduate I’d often have the following conversation:

What are you studying?

Egyptology. It was easier to get in on that than for classics, and my school has special links with the college.

What are you going to do with it?

Nothing. I’m hoping to become a merchant banker like my dad.

If only the “top” universities had been offering vocational courses in basic numeracy, courses restricted only to the rich (so they’d have the necessary status), where might we be now?

When I was at Oxford– Laura Spence kerfuffles aside – a huge number of ex-private school pupils seemed to have convinced themselves that actually, they were the ones who were disadvantaged. “As long as you’re from a state school, they let you in. It’s all political correctness.” Actual admissions figures and the finals results of the state school thickos ought to have demolished this belief, but somehow you’d find people determined to cling on to it (usually in memory of poor Rupert, who’d been devastated – devastated! – at not getting the place that was rightfully his, and was now languishing at a crammer, which is of course NOTHING like being a thick state school pupil who does retakes). At one point the Times even published an article which said state school pupils were advantaged at Oxbridge interviews because they had “street cred”. Whereupon my dad wrote in and had a letter published saying his  state-school educated daughter had got into Oxford and she didn’t have any street-cred (“whatever that is”, he added. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? As if being an uncool teenager isn’t bad enough, I got to have a letter from my dad published in a national newspaper, telling everyone how uncool I actually was. I must have been the uncoolest teen in the history of uncoolness).

To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be a way of making university admissions fair. I was advantaged by coming from the kind of background where you have time and space to study (even if some of your studies have to be “general”). It is, however, outrageous for the government to consider cuts which will make things even harder, while at the same time demanding that universities even up the balance, as though over-stretched academics are now responsible for social justice (as well as setting A-levels, making students CBI-approvable – anything but actually running their own departments). I do have one suggestion: if there is only enough funding for state school pupils to take 3 A-levels, private school pupils must decide, right at the start of their A-levels, which ones are the three that “count”. No others can be mentioned on any application forms, and you don’t get the chance to change your mind, ever. Sure, this limits potential and choice and freedom. But that’s what life is like for the rest of us and if you’re so bloody clever – if your education has been so great – you’ll find a way to make do with what remains. After all, that’s what the rest of us do.