A student’s move from year eight to year nine marks the first of their academic choices. Age fourteen, students select the GCSEs they will study for their remaining two years of secondary school. In 2008, when I was making these choices, I took a rather casual approach and did not consider any implications.
I remember one of my parents being informed on some of the available choices: students could take vocational subjects — such as business studies — and BTECs, which were promoted as the equivalent of two GCSEs. Students would be required to take English, maths, and science whilst testing the waters with other subjects; an innovative concept, allowing students to take another option to the traditional route.
Then came A levels. The same vocational subjects were presented to us students and with a similar sale. The results were telling, to my best recollection, the most subscribed class in my sixth form was BTEC business studies.
The Russell Group provides a guide — Informed Choices — supporting students on their post-16 subject choice. Representing 24 of the UK’s leading universities, the guide comments on the vocational options: “It is very important to know, however, that vocational qualifications are not always a suitable pathway towards studying for a degree at a Russell Group university.”
The guide recommends that students take two facilitating subjects, this is for those who are unsure on what to study but do want to keep their degree options open. This would include mathematics, further mathematics, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and languages (classical and modern).
Though, a recent study, by Catherine Dilnot of the University College London Institute of Education, shows that some talented students are not getting this message. Analysing those who entered university between 2010–2012, the study found that some A level choices did put certain students at a disadvantage. Vocational subjects such as law, accounting, and business studies are shown to put students at more of a burden when applying to elite universities than those who did the facilitating subjects.
The study highlighted the supply of vocational subjects, finding that those with an A level in law was much higher at further education and sixth form colleges (13.9% and 12.6%) than at grammar schools and private schools (1.4% and 0.3). Jake Anders, who looked at the effect of student’s GCSE choices, described the situation as a “constrained choice” for the individuals and the schools.
For both students and parents, it is easy to see why the confusion might arise. Ms. Dilnot states: “A student who aspires to a career in a professional service might easily think that taking an A level in law, accounting or business would help in achieving that goal. But it may be that choosing these subjects is actually unhelpful in high-status university admission.” Dilnot continues: “An apparently sensible subject choice for a student wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at a disadvantage.”
Undoubtedly, the purpose of learning needs further debate and the emergence of vocational subjects are a sign of progress. But, certain students are being shown down a winding path and are seeing their choices in higher education limited. A programme informing teachers or providing information directly to these students would make a fairer playing field. Young people should not have their early careers determined before they have even entered the classroom.