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Schools and parents advising on A Levels

(92 Posts)
duhgldiuhfdsli Sun 19-Oct-14 14:48:16

Yesterday was dispiriting, and tomorrow I suspect is going to be the same.

I spent a few hours staffing my department's stand at the open day "subject fair", which is meant to act as a central point to talk to staff from all departments.

Were I the weeping in public sort, I would weep in public at the number of people I saw who were keen to do our course, but hadn't got the right A Level choices. Given we are substantially less prescriptive for this subject than other universities of similar standing, they won't have the right A Levels for any similar course either. I'm in STEM, but my brothers and sisters in the humanities report precisely similar problems: keen, motivated students who may have well have saved their parents the petrol.

Where do they get their advice from? How do people get into a position of attending a Russell Group open day, travelling some distance, accompanied by their enthusiastic parents, but have A Level choices for which there are essentially no Russell Group courses, and certainly not in the subjects they are interested in? This is "I didn't think you needed maths in order to study engineering, so I gave up" and "surely biology is more important than chemistry for doctors?" level stuff.

What on earth are their schools, and in some cases their parents, thinking?

GraceFox Sun 19-Oct-14 14:59:19

What a disgrace, especially in this age of the Internet when a few quick clicks could have provided the necessary information before students commit to A level choices.

DwellsUndertheSink Sun 19-Oct-14 15:15:49

We advised my DD to take biology, as she wanted to do medicine. Her tutor advised her. He teachers advised her. SHe got an A at GCSE. We pointed her to the BMA website that lists admission criteria for unis......and she still took physics instead.

For some reason, she believed that she should choose subject she enjoyed, rather than subjects she needed. She is now making a pigs ear of choosing unis, but wont be guided or advised. So we are leaving it up to her - Miss independent can make her own choices, because clearly, we know nothing. She's chosen to do Engineering, but doesnt know what she wants to do with her engineering degree at the end of the 4 years. Any attempts to make her think about long term aims are a waste of time - she just wont engage.

It is most frustrating because I can see us forking out a fortune in fees over 4 years and her coming out with no more job prospects than if went out to work immediately. Teenagers seem to have an unrealistic view that they will leave uni and walk into a high paying job straight away. An enjoyable high paying job. A rewarding high paying job. There is no acceptance that one might leave uni and be the office junior for a couple of years doing crap jobs,


KatyMac Sun 19-Oct-14 15:23:12

It is frustrating - when DD made her choice (pre-GCSE) I asked what qualifications she would need. She didn't know so I told her to go find out

She struggled to find the information so we sat down together & she worked it out (with me signposting)

She got it right but wouldn't believe me about one subject; she now accepts she should have started it sooner

But children can be so stubborn - I don't know how to persuade her when she digs her heels in

debjud Sun 19-Oct-14 15:42:27

I think that part of the problem is that they have to choose their A levels, often before they really know what they want to do at uni, or change their mind about what they want to do half way through sixth form. If we had broader choices (like IB) then perhaps it wouldn't be such an issue.

grunty Sun 19-Oct-14 15:58:37

Debjud is right.

I also think the schools need to provide careers counseling at the same time as A level choices - maybe a flow chart showing which uni subjects/careers are open and which are not with particular choices.

DD1's school insisted she had to take maths A level for vetmed. It was only when I emailed an admissions tutor to confirm what it said on their website that the third A level could be any academic subject that they backed down ( to be fair 2 of the vet schools do ask for maths though none of the others do and one said they preferred a contrasting subject but it was not a major factor).

PowderMum Sun 19-Oct-14 16:04:49

My DD is Y11 and just about to choose her A level place if education, to stay at current school or switch, we have discussed what she likes and more importantly what she doesn't. She has ideas of what she wants to do at uni and has looked up the criteria for a range of places, Russell Group and others so she knows what to aim for to follow this course.
DD1 did similar for AS she chose the 3 subjects she needed for what she thought was her planned university course plus 1 other that would allow her to go off in a completely different direction. In the end she has stuck with plan A.
It really hasn't taken a lot of parental intervention to get to this stage, just support when asked. Accessing information is so easy these days, I had no idea what A levels would be needed for DD2s type of course, within 10 minutes I had the information on screen.
As the poster above said if you try and push/force a teenager it usually backfires.
OP Do you think it is clueless students, uninterested parents or poor support from the schools/colleges.

lecherrs Sun 19-Oct-14 16:50:23

I totally agree Dejbud too.

When students are making their A level choices, many of them have no idea about what they want to do at Uni, and this is further complicated by the fact that there are no universal requirements for set degrees. As the previous poster said, some unis want maths for medicine but others not.

When students pick their A levels with three / four different Potential degrees (which may or may not be realistic!) and of each of these different choices may have different entry requirements - I can see why it's difficult!

When I advise students, I usually ask them for their long term plans and to work backwards from there. This works if the student has clear aims as to what they want to do. But all to often, they're not sure what they want to do for a career, whether they want to go to Uni, let alone thought about potential degree choices!

I think students really miss quality careers advice that used to be available in schools.

lecherrs Sun 19-Oct-14 16:51:36

Sorry, vet med not medicine!

marmaladegranny Sun 19-Oct-14 17:14:08

DwellsUndertheSink - take heart! You can actually do quite a lot with a decent Engineering degree - my DD also insisted on doing Engineering, which is not an easy option, went straight from uni into a decent, non engineering, career which needed a science degree.
She was actually encouraged by her A level tutors….

stonecircle Sun 19-Oct-14 17:31:05

I'm glad you said that OP. I sometimes feel that, on this website, those who work in universities are quick to criticise us mums for the faintest suggestion that we might be doing too much for our dcs. I'm personally trying to tread a fine line between ensuring that DS2 does his own research but getting involved enough myself to try and ensure he achieves the best outcome for himself. That's mainly because I love him to bits but partly because I don't really want to be handing over thousands to fund a course which isn't right for him. So I'm glad that you acknowledge parents do have their uses when it comes to fact-finding and 'guiding' their dcs through the whole process!

Ironically, DS3, currently year 11, decided a year or two ago that he absolutely definitely wants to work in computing and has remained unshakable on that. He has his A level subjects lined up, has discussed which unis and what he needs for them with teachers and is raring to go. The downside is that he's not really interested in anything that doesn't fit into his masterplan. Maths, physics, electronics and computing - yes. Languages (at which he used to excel), RE, DT etc he puts the minimum of effort into because he feels they are of no use to him! And yes, I have explained the usefulness of an excellent set of GCSE results but I'm not sure I'm getting through!

MillyMollyMama Sun 19-Oct-14 23:18:01

You are doing too much, stone circle, if you are funding the tuition fees. There are loans for this and this means the students are more likely to take ownership of what degree they study. Living costs are another matter!!!! I think the OP has inadvertently hit on why independent school pupils end up at the better universities. They are better advised! I bet a lot of the pupils she has seen are from schools with modest track records of getting students to the best universities. I think there are lots of schools that still chase the good results in the league tables over sound advice to their pupils. The pupils are engaged and easier to teach because they are doing the subjects they like, the results look good but the university course becomes an area of great difficulty. But who actually cares about schools giving duff advice? Ofsted don't know and the parents are not aware or are happy with the choices. This is why firms recruit highly qualified people from abroad!!!

stonecircle Sun 19-Oct-14 23:33:32

Goodness, I have no intention of paying for tuition fees Milly - heaven forbid! But the amount of loan ds is entitled to will not cover his accommodation costs - especially if he goes to a London uni - and he will need help with living costs. By 'fund a course' I meant contribute financially to him doing a course. Lazy writing!

Kez100 Mon 20-Oct-14 04:30:20

It's a combination of issues. Poor careers advice (but that was worse in my time), students not actually knowing what degree or even career they want to do, a general theme of 'do what you love ' at A level because you will then be more likely to succeed and different Unis requiring different subjects for entry.

It's even worse for late bloomers - pushed into BTECs early - quite focussed courses which are great if you know what you want to do but otherwise it must be difficult for the children to focus on such a narrow field when they need to think broader.

MillyMollyMama Mon 20-Oct-14 09:24:49

I agree about London Universities, stonecircle. Very high accommodation costs. Schools need to be careful when advising London too!!!!

duhgldiuhfdsli Mon 20-Oct-14 09:34:36

I think the OP has inadvertently hit on why independent school pupils end up at the better universities. They are better advised!

Not inadvertently at all. I routinely ponder whether £20k/year is good value just for the careers and admissions advice.

Ofsted don't know and the parents are not aware or are happy with the choices.

Parents who don't themselves have a post-16 or post-18 education tend to be overly swayed by (a) "vocational" A Levels, which are mostly of little value for application to selective universities and (b) worse, in a way, the myth of UCAS points, which no selective university cares about. Hence talk

The cold hard truth is that the number one mistake people make is giving up maths. An humanities admissions tutor at Oxbridge recently said that they now look favourably at maths for humanities as well, and she personally would advise everyone applying to her university, for any subject, to do maths. Certainly, my elder's AS maths was explicitly mentioned at her humanities interview as being A Good Thing. And for science and engineering, you might be able to find courses that don't need maths but (a) it will greatly limit your options and (b) it will be hard once you get there; some departments will, at a push, accept you without A Level maths, but you will be doing a maths course at least as hard as A Level maths as soon as you arrive and if you fail it you will fail the first year.

Kez100 Mon 20-Oct-14 11:16:12

Another mistake - and it is of our education system - is that it encourages anyone not an A* GCSE Maths candidate to give it up having managed a C+.

Maths is really important and our education system should provide qualifications to enable non A* to continue the discipline. My son having been unlucky in crashing a GCSE exam (he managed a C but was predicted a A/B) has been provided with teaching at college to enable him to resit the higher paper but obviously, A Level was (and probably always will be) a no-no. But why not have other options available - there are very, very few.

secretsquirrels Mon 20-Oct-14 11:21:53

Very interesting thread.
I have DS2 just started year 12. He has no idea what he wants to do and the careers advice from school and prospective 6th forms did not inform him of important choices. I have no education beyond O levels (ancient) but I have experience with DS1 and years of stalking MN education threads.
I managed to guide him to A level subjects that, I hope, will keep his options open as far as possible until he makes a decision. He is doing Maths and 3 sciences. He wanted to do History, which I thought would be useful if he decided he wanted to go for Law or Politics but the college would not allow a "mixed pathway" hmm.
I will mention this to my Dsis as her DS is currently looking at 6th forms and reluctant to do maths.

BrendaBlackhead Mon 20-Oct-14 11:26:21

Thoroughly agree, Kez100.

It is a double-edged sword because there are students in ds's A Level Maths class who are struggling, but have been encouraged by their parents to do Maths in spite of not having a particular aptitude for the subject. So they are doing the "right" subject but are probably going to bomb in it. On the other hand, Maths is so valuable that giving it up at 16 or even 15 is downright daft. Ds's sixth form offer something called "Use of Maths". I'm not sure what that is but it would seem to offer a compromise for some.

Mindgone Mon 20-Oct-14 13:16:35

At DS's school, it's possible to do AS maths over the two years. I think this is great for situations like the one you described Kez100.

NickyEds Mon 20-Oct-14 16:18:54

My nephew has recently started the open days merry-go-round and is becoming slightly down hearted. It turns out that his Mum and I were right and he will indeed need physics to study Structural Engineering. He was doing physics A level but only got a C after his first year so was (I think a bit hastily) to drop it in favour of geography by his school. The school are, understandably, focused on him getting the very best set of results despite the A levels he will come out with not getting him where he wants to be.
My OH is an academic and sees this all of the time at open days, great, enthusiastic young people who have been so poorly informed. A girl at the last one said that all she wanted to apply for was Pharmacology but hadn't done either biology or chemistry a level.

RandomFriend Mon 20-Oct-14 16:47:51

A girl at the last one said that all she wanted to apply for was Pharmacology but hadn't done either biology or chemistry a level.

That must be my DNiece, NickyEds. She could have taken biology and maths for A level, but she and DSis thought she should do subjects that she would enjoy and the school agreed. So her subjects include things like media studies and PE.

OP, the reason for these choices was that DSis thought that it was important that her DD found the subjects enjoyable as then it would be easier to do the work. My suggestion that continuing maths would be a good idea was unwelcome.

gamerwidow Mon 20-Oct-14 17:00:11

I think it's too much to expect all 15/16 year olds to know what they want to do as a career. I suspect only a handful will have more than a vague idea of what they want to do. My niece falls into this group and I've encouraged her to pick a levels she will do well and enjoys rather than focussing on a career. I did look at the requirements for the area of study she shows most interest in and for the most part any 3 a levels will do as long as the grades are good. Even if you have picked the wrong subjects you can always add a foundation year to get the right skills for most courses.

BackforGood Mon 20-Oct-14 17:35:23

There's a combination of issues here.
One - the careers service has been practically disintegrated and teachers just don't have the capacity to take on that role 'in their spare time'.
Two - so many people don't actually know what it is they want to do at University when they are 15
Three - there's no guidance, and no advice given to Yr11s, about what to choose - even that they could be looking around 6th forms now. In our authority there is no co-ordination - you have to find everything out for yourself. You can only look up a school though, if you know about it - not if you are new to area, or indeed the school is a new one - there isn't a 'list' of different 6th forms you can go and consider / get advice from
Four - not all students have parents who are both interested and knowledgeable enough to help them find this information
Five - Even if they have an idea, it takes a lot more than 'a quick google' to find out more about subjects that you might have heard of nut not know much about. Without MN, I'd be totally stuck, and I consider myself to be fairly well educated and can negotiate the internet. I've learned a lot on here, but not everyone is on here.
Six - People offer different advice... how are the pupils supposed to work out which bits are good advice and which bits aren't ?

duhgldiuhfdsli Mon 20-Oct-14 17:51:10

Fancy doing something STEM? Maths, physics, chemistry, further maths if you can squeeze it in, AS biology. Will get you onto pretty much everything (a few med schools want A2 biology). AS further maths is worthwhile even if you don't take it through to A2 (because FP1 is chock full of meaty goodness).

Fancy doing something arts/humanities? English, History, a foreign language that your parents don't speak and of a country in which you haven't lived, AS maths. Substitute music for English if you might want to do music and are fairly certain you don't want to do English. Substitute English for a second foreign language (same caveat) if you are fairly certain you want to do something languagey. Will get you onto pretty much anything, although the fussiest of economics degrees might want A2 maths (of course, by going AS, you defer that decision until the point you might be a lot surer).

From what I can see, the sine qua non for STEM is maths, and the sine qua non (or at least ne plus ultra) for humanities is history. And the single most committing move you can make is not doing AS maths.

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