Thursday, 18 August 2011

Soft subjects and soft thinking

I can't do it. I can't resist. I swore to myself I would stay out of A-level results day, what with having no A-level students this year. But I can't.

It started a couple of years back when murmurings began about top universities beginning to look down on certain kinds of subject. I confess a mild negative prejudice myself towards Media Studies and Travel & Tourism but the leaked list included Sociology - a fairly established subject - and my own degree, which I taught at A-level, Psychology, claiming it was not a rigorous or academic subject. This astonished me, as it was in direct despite of evidence that psychology graduates have better job prospects than almost any other grads. OK, so the list included Film Studies (I probably agree, having taught a bit of it) but it also included Theatre Studies - and having taught both that and A-level English, I can assure you of their equal difficulty and workload. Where were these classifications of "hard" and "easy" coming from, except the raw (and usually uninformed) prejudice of a handful of (traditionally-educated) people at top universities?

My stress on this topic intensified in February when the Russell Group of top universities published their list of preferred A-level subjects. The observant will note that it is, in essence, Gove's EBacc: English, Maths, pure sciences; two main humanities, a language. Quite who is puppeting whom is unclear, but the narrowness of this list of Victoriana is clear. At time of writing, I note that you get a 404 failure when you attempt to download the document, which also has spelling mistakes (here's the Indy's version of the detail if this error persists.) I am humoured by both these ironies, from the website of the country's most academic universities. Still.

Today, the Guardian ran an article on the gap between state and private sectors in the uptake of "hard" versus "soft" subjects. One is tempted to question why the Guardian, of all papers, is treating this as newsworthy, if it's having to put those words into inverted commas: "look, we know there's no evidence and that this is all about prejudice, but we're going to report on it anyway, and in misleading statistical terms that make the distinction sound quite scientific." Hmmm. Let's call it a contribution to debate and move on. But now I'm sounding all revolutionary and I'm not. I've always been a rigorously academic student and teacher myself. But this public muddle is hurting students at all levels and of all types of ability.

Let's consider some apparently non-academic subjects - but I've tried to use ones which are nonetheless traditional in this example - ones that the private-schooled children of Telegraph readers might study. So here it is: I have profound respect for those who are good at Art and Music - I sure as hell am not one of them - but I can indeed see that those skills may not be ideal for a degree in Medicine. But there are two options here, and both should be applied: first, make non-academic subjects a different qualification group, rather than putting them in A-levels. I do not mean downgrade them - I am a champion and enthusiast for meaningful, rigorous, industry-devised qualifications in creative, media, and business areas. It will do everyone a favour to make A-level a narrowly academic qualification again. Universities with creative courses will be able to have parallel entry routes: these academic and / or these vocational routes into our courses; or, "this particular course is a purely vocational course and will only accept vocational qualifications from 18 year-olds" (or replace "vocational" with "academic" in said sentence.) This provides clarity for students from as early as 15 and, more importantly, the appropriate course type for different individual 16-18 year-olds - if the British can only get over their traditional (and internationally-unwarranted) prejudice against the vocational. Russell Group unis would be able to flag almost all their courses as "purely" academic at point of entry without students being confused by the apparent, but clearly false, equivalence of A-levels. This would be a formalisation of what they're already doing, but within an agreed national system. What's wrong about their current behaviour is not that some subjects are more suitable for some degrees than others, but that their broader-brushing tarring of the overall merit of many other subjects mean they are pulling against the rest of the boat when great lengths are gone-to to ensure A-levels are equal in rigour. Universities which specialise in rowing should know better. We are some distance down this road already, but the whole premise of "A-levels = academic only" needs to be clearer and formalised.

Secondly, and in balance with the above restriction on students, delimit universities' right to specify too many A-levels; this is muddying the waters of the simple "A-levels = academic" point. The Russell Group insists students can only have one subject not on their list - I did Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Theatre Studies, so ironically for a whinger, I'd be alright - but this is too narrow. Most students now study four AS levels (and those that don't, should, or should study a different qualification type, I think) but saying only one subject is free to choose is too narrow. A university is well within its rights to insist on half of what students study at AS being suitable to lead into any given degree, and of course to insisting on a good grade in one final A-level, directly relevant to the uni course proposed; but 16-18 is not merely a ramp into university - it should be part of an edifying, if increasingly specialising, period of education: you are past the "minimum threshold" stress of GCSE core subjects; you are learning in a more interesting and conducive environment with more enthusiastic students and fewer resentful trapped morons; you are working in more depth (GCSE to A-level is a bigger jump than A-level to degree, I strongly contend) and starting to really understand the relevance of options and subjects to your future; and let us not forget the personal development mountain young people have naturally to ascend at this age. By all means universities should be able to insist (1) on one excellent grade in the directly relevant subject AND (2) on the ("BBB") balance / points of grades overall and perhaps even (3) on a second "near-relevant" subject at AS, as one of four; but beyond this their narrowing insistence is landgrabbing beyond their remit or right. Leave young people some space to learn and choose who to be. The Russell Group guidance is clearly more restrictive than this. Their complaint that they're saying this to aid state school pupils may be honestly their intention, but the effect of their too-narrow pronouncement on subject validity is a great harm to educational breadth for huge numbers of students to whom their advice should be a practical irrelevance.

So what is it? Are A-levels all the same, or are they not? Is there a difference between academic subjects and non-academic? Do letter grades mean the same thing in different subjects? Does all this only apply to the very top universities anyway, and hence is relevant to only the top 15% of the cohort competing for those places, or should everyone else let themselves be poisoned by this prejudice too? I pity the poor saps caught in this whirlwind of contradiction. I mean, of course, our students (and perhaps, myself included, our Careers Advisors - both formal and informal.) There is an ugly brawl being played out in media public between traditionalists (who want only a narrow handful of academic subjects) and contextualists / futurists. Labour allowed the blooming of A-levels willy-nilly (I disapprove, as should be clear - there should have been more, and more profile for, vocational), and now the Tories want to smash this up - but (as depressingly usual) without a thoughtful philosophy beyond "What would Eton do?" Weirdly, everything's topsy-turvy here: at GCSE, with younger pupils who should be freer to choose, Gove imposes the EBacc (in effect, through the violent arm-twisting of league table placement); bad decision not because of the act of imposition, but because of the narrowness for that age of student (and because of the poisonous unwritten co-motivation - that it is to bash certain teachers and schools, not just to assess students.) At A-level, Willetts fails to take responsibility and impose a narrowing where it is much more appropriate age-wise, and instead lets / encourages small vested interest groups like the Russell Group publicise views which outright contradict a national system of supposedly equalised qualifications - and which are relevant to only a tiny percentage of achievers, but which have poisoned the whole debate. Good God. Both the baby and the bathwater are in the wrong place. How hard can this be?

If this were merely about academic rigour (as so often claimed), the above analysis points us to a solution which would rightly make student choices about relevance key, promote good vocational courses and still retain great breadth in academic courses at A-level, but it's worse than that: it's principled traditionalism-for-its-own-sake. Anyone that teaches these subjects (especially, I want to say, if like me you've taught multiple different A-levels) knows the narrow Russell list is simply not accurate, so let me say this clearly: bright as the Russell people may be, there are no grounds (note: no evidence presented!) for their heightened claims for the superiority of this tiny / narrow handful of subjects. I did Chemistry at A-level and I assure you it's no easier than Psychology, which I teach. Theatre Studies is at least equally hard as English as an A-level subject, having taught both. The Russell attempt to refer to the EBacc core as "facilitating subjects" at A-level is sinister: it smacks of traditional public-school greasing of the route to the ludicrously imbalanced corridors of certain institutions (private school sctudents are 7% of the population but nearly half of all Oxbridge places. Merit alone cannot justify or explain this.) You can narrow A-level carefully, and insist on relevant study and high-quality outcomes without destroying all educational variety and breadth of option.

Other stats in the Guardian article worry too. As for the General Studies / Critical Thinking options, I am perfectly happy facing both ways on this: they are valuable, they do broaden educational thinking, they should be done by many students - but they should be thought of as an additional, and not a main, subject. Ideally, every school runs an enrichment programme giving students a choice between these kinds of options (and others like D of E, World Challenge etc), but making them use the block of time compulsorily for ONE of the options - perhaps for less time per week than real subjects, but to end in accreditation anyway. Doesn't that sound ideal? Of course, the problem is that in the Guardian's unusually reductive analysis, a state school doing something great like this would fuel the appearance of trivial subjects being taken. A distinction needs to be drawn between the inappropriate use of these subjects as main studies and their wise and edifying use as complementary, breadth-focused studies. Stats on these subjects merely re-affirm prejudices unless interrogated more skilfully.

We can fix all this. And it needs Tory decisiveness - there, I said it. We usually don't like dogma in education, and with good reason - but this ridiculous unclarity is wildly unacceptable. There must be a single, fair and clear system - even if we all have issues with some parts of it. To summarise, that central system needs these tenets:

1. If a subject isn't "good" or "rigorous" enough to count as an A-level, it shouldn't be permitted to exist as one. Boards should only be allowed to generate syllabi which have been pre-approved in principle. This decision is too important to be politicised under any given Secretary of State so, although they should have the final decision, an advisory board representing universities, employers, teachers, students, parents and political opposition should exist to contribute to these discussions, and their discussions reported publicly - woe betide the Secretary of State who goes against concensus opinion. Some subjects could be abolished on this basis - but see point 5.

2. Within the remit of this system, no UK university / group (however grand they think themselves) should be permitted to distinguish between the value of subjects in the same qualification, except for their direct relevance to the degree in question - and that for only ONE subject at A-level. Remember that the purpose of 16-18 education is broader than just being a feeder to your institution.

3. Once a subject is accepted as an A-level, we must accept that the (hugely complex and extensive) system of standardising difficulty between subjects and papers is effective, and trust professionals to arrange this for us. Politics, universities and employers' groups (which should all sit on the board in point 1) should commit to refrain from public statements calling into doubt the efficacy or politicisation of the significant number of hard-working, experienced teachers who (very effectively) achieve this standardisation.

4. Subjects that aren't academic can be qualified by other routes, and we should welcome and celebrate this. If this means more teenagers doing their study of vocational courses (and by this I might mean not just carpentry but also apparently intellectual subjects like Graphical Design and ICT) under Apprenticeship-type arrangements with real industry, that - IMHO - is greater, because the more relevant, kudos to those training routes. Bear in mind the rising evidence that employers want apprentices to mould, not graduates.

5. Making and publicising these repeated changes of educational direction arbitrarily is profoundly unfair to students whom you are asking to plan ahead by years. There should be cross-party agreement that, although a government of the day has the right to make any change within these points, there will be a minimum lag of three years before the new rules come into effect. This permits students to fairly make informed choices. It's all very well the Russell Group whinging about state school kids "restricting their options" - but when they've been studying their courses for two years and you only released this guidance five months ago, how can that be fair?

There's one final thing to dwell on why the transparency I'm calling for is so important: in desperate economic times, with sky-high youth unemployment and one final chance to get into universities before fees become crippling, it is no wonder today that the UCAS site crashed with a boggling four times the traffic of last year. The famous photograph of people pressing desperately to get onboard that last helicopter out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War come to mind. I do not envy this oppressed and embattled generation. We must do everything we can to make things right, clear, and fair for them - and those that follow.

And I'm not sure if that point I just made should be discussed in History, Media Studies, Philosophy or Critical Thinking. Bear that in mind.