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Shock! Horror! Schools do badly at measure that nobody cares about

Do Russell Group universities really require 3 ‘facilitating’ A levels?

The inclusion of  new measure, the % of students in sixth forms that achieve AAB in ‘facilitating’ subjects’ at A level, has caused much hand wringing in the press. The BBC reported that “almost a quarter of England’s sixth forms and colleges have failed to produce any pupils with the top A-level grades sought by leading universities” and most of the press followed suit.

But I found this odd. The school I chair was listed as having only 5% achieving the facilitating subjects, yet our sixth form is in the top 10% nationally for value added, three of our students have offers for Oxbridge and many more have offers for Russell Group universities. if three facilitating subjects are required, then how did these students get their offers?

In fact none of the three Oxbridge students have the supposedly required three facilitating subjects. One has Drama as their 3rd A level, another has Photography. is this new measure based on what universities actually want?

Russell Group Advice: Two Facilitating Subjects

When I asked our Head of Sixth Form, he explained that the school was very careful to advise students in which subjects to take, based on Russell Group guidance. There is a very useful page on the Russell Group site, called “Informed Choices”, which includes a booklet and video of useful advice.

These do set out the facilitating subjects: Maths, Further Maths, English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages. But it does not suggest three facilitating subjects but only two. Indeed it specifically advises: “Generally speaking students who take one ‘soft’ subject as part of a wider portfolio of subjects do not experience any problems applying to a Russell Group university.” (p29 of Informed Choices)

If this is accurate, then the new measure is nonsense. The DfE should indeed be asking whether schools are helping students choose the right subjects to get into the best universities, if they have the potential, but – because this appears to be the wrong measure – we have no idea whether students are taking appropriate subjects. The correct measure is surely which % of students gets AAB including two facilitating subjects.

So the Department for Education and, based on DfE advice, the press has once again attacked our schools and our students based on a measure that has no meaning. In fact our schools may be doing very well at getting students to combine playing to their strengths with taking the appropriate subjects.

Setting Schools Against Students

Worse this new measure could have a very dangerous effect. Measures of school success should align what benefits the school with what benefits students. As a governor I am happy with the school devoting spare resources to helping borderline GCSE students get C grades, as it not only helps the school’s league table measure but makes a difference to the life chances of those students.

The reverse is the case here. The best course for students appears to be to take two facilitating subjects combined with a 3rd subject of their choice which will best p-lay to their talents. But the best course for the school to succeed on this measure is to persuade students, possibly against their best interests, to take a 3rd facilitating subject rather than the one they are best at.

Is this another case of Michael Gove seeking to make students take the subjects he personally thinks they should rather than those actually required by universities?

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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Henry – this new “measure” is madness (I’ve posted a short thread on this but have suggested that discussion takes place here). The measure has been applied retrospectively and, as you say, it doesn’t even reflect advice from the Russell group.

    This is yet another stick with which to beat schools.

    One headteacher has already posted on a girls’ school website:

    “Academic success is vital in today’s competitive university and work environment and we work hard to ensure that all our girls can achieve the qualifications they need and deserve. This is not done by restricting them to a narrow band of ‘facilitation’ subjects which are currently being picked out as a measure of success in the A Level league tables but by offering them a broad range of options. We also believe that education is about much more than just exams so we work equally hard to ensure that every girl can discover her spark and is equipped with the confidence and resilience to thrive in a challenging world and reach her fullest potential.”

    This was from Sydenham Girls’ High, an independent school. All heads, whether of private or state schools, should follow this example.

  2. Headteacher @kalinski1970 also posted on Twitter that, of students at his school getting into Russell Group universities, 86% did not have the 3 facilitating subjects. The measure is a nonsense.

    The interesting question is whether the DfE has messed up and not realised the Russell Group only required two facilitating subject, or has deliberately distorted it to once again produce headlines dismissing the achievements of our schools.

  3. libby lawson says:

    Henry and Janet thank you for raising this. When I think it seems that the whole world has gone completely mad I check the feelings and thoughts of those on this site and feel I am not alone.

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