Saturday, 16 November 2013

Informed Choices?

On this blog I mostly write about alcohol or drug policy, as my academic research has focused on ‘binge’ drinking and my current main job involves commissioning drug and alcohol treatment services.

However, for a couple of years between 2009 and 2011, I worked for the Russell Group.  I’m somewhat ambivalent about this.  I enjoyed some elements of the job, and felt I could make a positive difference on, for example, immigration policy.  For whatever reason (and I was grateful for it), I mostly focused on access to university, community engagement and immigration.  Other elements (fortunately those I was less involved in) made me feel uncomfortable – tuition fees, for example, or business engagement to a certain extent.  And of course the Russell Group is a lobbying organisation, so we’d always be keen to present our institutions in the best light.  Given the title of this blog is ‘Thinking to Some Purpose’, and my passion is for clear, open, honest policy debate, you can imagine my discomfort with that.  And I’m no salesman.

One of the biggest benefits of the work was acquiring some expertise on higher education policy.  Given that I work at a university some of the time now, having that perspective can be useful.  (Although most of my detailed knowledge has faded and become out of date anyway.)

HE policy is one of those areas where ‘thinking to some purpose’ is in short supply.  There’s all sorts of posturing that goes on, and a lack of clarity around issues like student finance.  One of these areas is school qualifications, and it’s this issue that brought back my work on ‘widening participation’, as access to university is called – and prompted me to write this post.

On Saturday, I spotted Stephen Jones tweeting about an article reporting Michael Gove wondering whether the definition of ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level is too narrow.  The concern seemed to centre around one particular subject: economics A-level is not on the list of ‘facilitating subjects’.

Of course, this raises the question of what on earth is a ‘facilitating subject’.  Well, the definition seems to come from the Russell Group’s guide to A-level choices: Informed Choices.

[Now I should declare an interest here.  I was involved in responding to lots of queries concerned parents and teachers (and indeed university staff) sent through to the Russell Group when Informed Choices was first published.  And in fact, I get a credit in the acknowledgements, although I only really remember proof-reading the document.]

Importantly, the guide is fundamentally a summation of the entry requirements and recommendations of different courses at Russell Group universities.  People often misunderstand the idea of facilitating subjects, when it’s all very clearly laid out in the guide.  They are not ‘hard’ subjects; they are subjects that keep open the most opportunities at university.

It’s for this reason that History and Maths make the list, but Economics doesn’t.  To take an example, the closest thing Oxford has to Economics (Economics and Management) doesn’t require Economics A-level; it does require Maths.  OK, so you’re only ‘highly recommended’ to study History A-level to study the subject at Oxford, but the E&M page doesn’t say that about Economics.  And we know that Maths is required for any number of university courses.  (I’m not going to put links here; it only takes a quick browse of entry requirements for a few courses.)

Basically, choosing Maths over Economics at A-level keeps open more options for university study – and that’s all that Informed Choices is telling people.  Informed Choices states that it’s not making a hard/soft distinction between A-level subjects, and in fact explicitly chooses economics as an example of a subject that lots of people would consider Economics a ‘hard’ subject.

This idea that not being on the ‘facilitating’ list is somehow a slight on that subject is a complaint I remember from a whole range of school and university staff (mostly about their own particular subject).  Quite often it was possible to point the university staff to the entry requirements set out by their own department.  Religious Studies, for example, isn’t on the list because (again, taking Oxford for consistency) it isn’t required to study Theology at university.

Of course, there’s an argument that the entry requirements of universities are too narrow, but that’s not the same as saying the list of facilitating subjects is too narrow.  And it would be hard to make that argument for Economics, given that Maths is definitely more helpful for university Economics – and certainly for all those science subjects that Economics wouldn’t help with much at all.  I say this as someone who did Economics A-level myself (which is only of relevance because in the Evening Standard article Michael Gove is quoted as saying it was his only A-level as he mostly did Scottish Highers).

In this context, I worry about schools minister David Laws – an economics graduate – who finds the fact that Economics isn’t on the facilitating list ‘perplexing’.

However, the complaint of the student cited in the Evening Standard article is broader than this.  Kiki Ifalaye is quoted as suggesting: “Because economics is not a facilitating subject it inclines students to steer away from it. [The list] doesn’t take into consideration their skills and individuality and aspirations. It should be broader.”

In this question, we get to the heart of the matter, and why I’m posting on this blog: what are A-levels for?

The facilitating list is only there to facilitate a wide range of options for university study.  It’s written by a set of universities, not schools, employers or the government.  However, it is now used bygovernment as a way of ranking schools.  Given that the list is only about university access, judging schools by it only tells you about the choices and achievements students make in terms of getting into university.

But schools don’t simply exist to provide universities with students.  Although it could be argued that a higher proportion of 18-year-olds are going to university now than in the past, a higher proportion of young people stay in education to age 18, and so A-levels and other post-16 qualifications can’t simply be seen as entry exams for university.This is particularly relevant given that universities are set to have a much larger role in setting A-levels.  The right choices to get into a Russell Group university might not be the right choices for someone leaving education after A-levels.

Moreover, they might not even be the right choices to get into other universities – many of which I’d see as considerably better choices, especially for certain subjects.  It’s the old unease about the Sutton Trust concentrating on Oxbridge.

Therefore, although some students might be wise to be guided by Informed Choices, it’s not even relevant for all university applicants, let alone all A-level students.  It should not be seen as the gold standard of study.

And this is where the complaints of the Economics, Religious Studies and Sociology teachers make sense.  Personally, as a sociologist of sorts I’m sometimes inclined to think sociology should be a mandatory subject at school – and I’d do all I could to encourage people to study sociology (though I don’t know very much about the A-level course in practice, having only browsed through some online study specifications).

If Informed Choices is discouraging people from studying subjects they’re interested in and would likely serve them well in the future, then that’s a bad thing.  But I don’t know that this is the Russell Group’s fault.  If anything, it’s the government’s fault for playing on the old ‘hard/soft’ subject stereotypes.  As with so much Coalition policy, what’s favoured is what the politicians are familiar with, rather than looking at the broader picture and the evidence available.

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