I was pleased to read that Russell Group universities have decided to remove their ‘facilitating’ subject list which promoted ‘traditional’ A Level subjects as the most appropriate for studying at high ranking universities.

Although the idea of the list was to help students, it was, in some cases, seen as the only list from which to choose A Levels which often led to a narrowing of choice and pressure for students to take subjects which may not have truly reflected their interests.

This, for me, was the key issue as it goes against the advice we offer at Ipswich High School, namely; if you love the subjects you study, you will be stimulated, enthused and be happy to focus the attention needed to be successful.

A Changing Landscape

The university and job market landscapes are ever-changing and gone are the days when a 2:1 or first class honours from a certain university would guarantee a graduate job. The rise of higher and professional apprenticeships has given students different options post-18 meaning the job market for graduates is becoming ever more competitive in a new way. In my view, choosing subjects in which you are interested and will gain the highest grades is becoming more important than ever.

Some people will say that only choosing three A Level subjects and not having Maths as one of them, for example, closes doors to students. This is inherently wrong as a student choosing Art, English and French are unlikely to apply for a course or enter into a workplace where A Level Maths is required. And equally a student choosing two Sciences and Maths will almost certainly apply to a course and workplace where those are the skills required; it is horses for courses.

Looking Beyond the Russell Group

While Russell Group universities (currently 24) are seen as the best research universities in the UK, it does not necessarily mean that they are the best teaching universities or in fact the right destination for everyone. This is not a criticism of the institutions which are all world class in their own way but each student must select the right university for them – based on the course, the teaching, the location, employment opportunities and a myriad of other factors.

The TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) is a relatively new judge of university teaching quality and ranks universities by the quality of teaching rather than research. We should (as with any ranking or review) use this with caution given that universities were asked to supply certain information but have the option of not supplying some or all that was requested. What is clear however is that a Russell group university such as the London School of Economics (LSE) is ranked as highly as 4th in some university league tables yet only gains a bronze rating on the TEF. Conversely, Kent University ranked 49th in the same ranking is given a TEF gold rating. Does that mean that a student should choose Kent over LSE? Of course not but each student must look at all of the data, visit the university and work out what is most important for them when making a decision.

Making an Informed Choice

In place of the facilitating subject list, the Russell Group has launched a new interactive website which should guide students into considering A Level choices more aligned to their future degree course: https://www.informedchoices.ac.uk/. This is another helpful tool which, in conjunction with the UCAS website, university open days and individual websites can help to inform A Level choices.

I hope that this change will bring about the removal of a perceived hierarchy in A Level subjects and an assumption that some are more valid or rigorous than others. The skewed perception comes not from the present generation of students but from those in decades gone by where there were fewer universities and fewer students. I always say to our students to talk to those people who know what is going on in the university world today. As we have seen from the significant government push to get females into STEM courses and jobs (which has yielded marginal gains in the numbers of females entering into that area of work, 5.1% from 2017-18) pushing students to study certain subjects does not usually work. It is, therefore, a positive step by the Russell group to acknowledge the importance of many different A Level subjects.

I am confident that our expert teaching and Sixth Form environment will inspire our students to succeed in whatever A Level subjects they choose. However, I want them to be happy and be choosing their subjects for the right reasons – to explore their interests and suit their passions. We have an outstanding track record of ensuring our Year 13s get into their first choice universities and courses; whether it’s Agriculture, Chemistry, Interior Design or Law.

As long as our Year 11 students choose their A Level subjects in an informed manner having gained all the information they need from a variety of sources (including me!) this won’t change.

by Rob Hastings, Director of Sixth Form
28 May 2019