Caitlin Fern O’Brien
With the New Year comes the deadline for university applications and despite the recent increase in fees the number of applicants continues to grow with each year. However, these aren’t the only figures in the industry that have grown at an alarming rate over the past couple of years. As competition grows so do the entry requirements. I haven’t yet donned the black hat and gown and “in my day” all they wanted was a meagre AAB. Now A* grades are a common sight in Russell group university prospectuses.
The pressure is mounting. Pressure to achieve high grades. Pressure to perform well at university. Pressure to gain a stable career path after university to pay off the £36,000* in debt university students have accumulated. Is this a healthy education system? Is this emphasis on academic brilliance changing society for the better…or for the worse?
For many, the road to university, and on to their future careers, begins at the ripe old age of sixteen. For those choosing to continue in education 300,000 of them, whether by choice or by default, will study towards a set of A-levels. These are by far the most popular secondary education qualification in the UK, and are the default description of entry requirement grades for UK universities. Common practice used to be for students to select 4 subjects at AS-level and continue with 3 of these onto A-level. However, this system has run into a range of problems, which throws up some questions regarding its apparent popularity.
Firstly, recent events have raised concerns whether students are in a position to make an informed decision at sixteen. Indeed, several schools came under heavy criticism for giving students incorrect advice regarding their A-level options. As a result many students found themselves with inappropriate combinations of A-levels for their desired degree. In an attempt to prevent further incidents Russell group universities were prompted to publish a guide outlining essential A-levels and requirements for various courses. If the schools can’t even get it right then it’s no wonder some students struggle.
As if this wasn’t already difficult enough recent reforms have caused further confusion. As of next September, due to the abolishment of the modular system, AS-levels will only be offered as a stand-alone qualification, instead of being integrated as part of the A-levels. Universities have lead the resistance against this reform as they will no longer have a student’s AS-level grades as a measurement of how well a student is coping with the material. Without this guide admissions tutors will have to rely GCSE grades or predicted grades, both of which can be unreliable measures.
This means the system is in a continuous state of flux. On the surface this appears to be a positive thing, as the decision is under review. But in reality, for schools and their students, this uncertainly is proving less than helpful. 
Funding cuts also mean schools now only receive funding for three A-level subjects per student. Focusing on only three subjects leaves little scope to combine the humanities, sciences and languages meaning students are often forced to choose one or the other. The system as a whole, even before these reforms has been criticised for being too narrow and for limiting student’s breadth of knowledge. Now it appears they are committed to restricting students even further.
But what is the alternative? Another secondary education qualification which has been gaining ground in the UK recently is the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
The International Baccalaureate, or IB, lasts over the equivalent two years as the A-levels. Within the IB diploma students choose three subjects to study at a higher level (HL) and three at a standard level (SL), over the course of these two years. Crucially these subjects must cover a breadth of disciplines, including languages and sciences. 
For the undecided mind this reduces the pressure to choose a specialist path at sixteen. They can be exposed to a wide range of subjects without sacrificing the depth of knowledge required for entering a university degree. However what really makes the IB stand out in comparison to A-levels is the style of learning and the approach to education that the IB encourages.
As part of the diploma students must complete an extended essay, show examples of learning through tasks outside the classroom and are encouraged to think critically. Overall the diploma is described as “addressing the intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being of students”. It has been praised for its holistic approach to learning and for creating well rounded students who succeed not only in higher education but also in employment. There is a large deal of emphasis on the development of so called “soft skills” such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence, which are becoming increasingly valued by employers.
In short, the purpose of the IB is not just to churn out intellectually brilliant students who have memorised the textbook back to front. Instead it aims to equip young people with the discipline and skills they’ll need in whatever they choose to pursue.
In contrast, A-levels focus on little other than the academic achievement and the ability to pass exams. It appears A-levels serve but one purpose, as a conveyor belt into a university degree. It may therefore be considered slightly embarrassing that there is evidence to suggest that an IB student is more likely to attain a first class degree at university than an A-level student. 
However, the IB is not without its pitfalls. Studying more subjects comes with a naturally heavier workload and the IB is therefore considered by some to be more academically challenging. For this reason it appears to only be high performing schools, such as private or grammar schools that offer the IB. Few state schools, especially those in challenging areas would consider taking up the IB over A-levels. This is partly due the fear that the curriculum is too demanding and would dissuade students from continuing, but also due to the monetary cost of the application process. 
In addition to this the IB cannot escape from the dominance of the A-levels when it comes to university applications. Many entrance examinations to say Oxbridge and similar establishments are based on the A-level curriculum and therefore in some ways give these students an unfair advantage over those on the IB curriculum.
The tides look to be changing however. In January 2014 a report from an independent advisory group, chaired by Professor Sir Roy Anderson reflected on the education system and brought into question, amongst other things, the shortcomings of current secondary education. One of the recommendations highlighted in the report suggested the A-levels should be adjusted towards an IB style qualification. 
Indeed the recent A-level reforms are the first steps in this transition. Unfortunately poorly implemented policy and a rushed process, perhaps largely due to the upcoming election, have now left schools and students in chaos as a consequence.
Where has this drive for specialisation, which we are now desperately trying to undo, come from? The corner we’ve found ourselves backed into should really come as no surprise, after all A-levels were first introduced in the early 1950s with the aim of encouraging specialisation. However, this was also in a time when vocational studies and apprentices were common place and respected. Over the years these routes into careers have slowly diminished, sometimes due to lack of demand, but largely a result of funding cuts. Vocational types of qualifications such as apprentices and the BTEC have slowly become devalued, and we are now paying the price.
In stark comparison, countries such as Germany and the Nordic region take a very different attitude.
In Germany vocational apprentices are considered to be gold standard and prove to be more popular amongst young people than a university degree. These are joint training schemes between colleges and companies which provide a nationally recognised qualification. They are highly flexible meaning they are continuously developing to meet industry demand and move with the current job-market. The result of this dual training system is a highly trained young work force. 
My own experience living in Icelandic threw into sharp relief just how much emphasis is placed on a university degree in the UK. Having lived there for eight years I left Iceland shortly into my college education and began my A-levels at a private school in the UK. However, I was provided with a unique vantage point from which I could observe the contrast of my own progression, and that of my friends in Iceland, though these vastly different education systems.
In Iceland, once in college at age sixteen students need only specify a stream such as languages or sciences. They are still required to study maths, Icelandic, English, Danish and even P.E. regardless of their chosen stream. At the end of college the option of university is presented equally alongside other job or career opportunities. As a result I watched as many of my friends, despite being very academically bight and more than capable, opt out of attending university. Instead many of them took some time out to travel or simply started earning and saving money. At first I was critical but looking at where they are now it is clear they have all carved out a unique path which suited them as individuals, which for some did include university in the end.
A similar attitude can be found in the other Nordic countries where, despite few formal examinations, they continue to score consistently highly in world rankings for literacy and numeracy.
The truth is some people aren’t suited to the academic environment, others simply aren’t interested. This doesn’t make them any less intelligent or ambitious. Sometimes we forget that education is not just something that occurs in an establishment or in the classroom. No doubt, university can open up many opportunities, and not just academic ones. It gives students a chance to experience things that would otherwise not be open to them and these activities can heavily influence their career choices, sometimes more so than the degree they studied.
But I worry we are streamlining young people through into university degrees without affording them any other viable options. Striving for academic brilliance is by no means a bad thing but there is now a damaging notion that we perceive anyone without a university degree as a “failure”.
We already have more graduates than graduate jobs and more PhD students than there are academic positions. We have filled the demand for specialisation in expert fashion at the cost of leaving a gaping hole to fill in developing skilled workers. Bringing back the value of vocational qualifications and apprenticeships would help to fill this hole but this requires not just funding but a shift in attitude.
Unfortunately the system appears too rigid to adapt and botched reforms have left it even more damaged than before, but at least we are waking up and facing the music. Shifting towards an IB style secondary qualification will give students the scope to combine academic disciplines resulting in a much more well-rounded education. I feel fears that a harder course will discourage students are misplaced, they will never meet your high expectations if you set them low ones. 
*Based on £9,000 tutition fees and £3,000 living costs for a 3 year bachelor’s degree.