A recent survey of A level students conducted by Which? found that around three in ten wish they had chosen different A level subjects. Only half felt sufficiently informed about how their A levels might affect their choice of university or choice of course, and three in ten said that advice they were given when choosing their A levels failed to take into account how their subject options might affect their degree and university choices.
Careers advice in schools has long been criticised as patchy – not least by Ofsted, who in 2013 reported that only one in five schools were effective in ensuring that all students were receiving the level of information they needed. On the surface of it, then, it sounds like this may be a fairly straightforward failing on the part of school careers guidance practitioners. However, it would be wise for us to pause before pulling the trigger.
I am fortunate to be part of the Bedales Professional Guidance Department which provides a well-resourced, highly-structured and regularly reviewed HE pathway for students. However, making good choices also requires an investment on the part of the student. To this end, we encourage them to make use of Unifrog – a wonderful resource that, amongst other things, is a comparison platform for university courses. It collates available data – subject requirements, typical grade offers, league table and student satisfaction scores, tuition and teaching provision, and much more. No less usefully, it allows students to calibrate their progress against what is available to them, and so make realistic choices.
Overall, the resources we are able to bring to bear on behalf of our students bear no relation to those I encountered as a sixth former. Does this guarantee that our students make decisions that are right for them? Well, for those who are clear about their direction and highly motivated it is a great help, but for others the picture can be less straightforward.
In my experience, around half of any 6.1 year group will know broadly what they want to do, with about 10%-20% of the cohort very clear about subjects and institutions, and how they plan to realise their goals. The remaining half will tend to be pretty vague in comparison – their direction might extend towards doing one of the humanities, but with little preference as to where. Around 10% of the cohort will have no clear idea.
It is tempting to assume that students will make best use of what we make available to them. However, whilst at key points some want a great deal of my time, others need lots of encouragement to come and see me and give resources a wide berth. Unifrog would seem obviously useful when deciding upon A level and other choices, but a recent audit suggested that only one third of Bedales Block 5 students had visited the site.
We must be wary, then, in assuming that students’ A level and university choices reflect the quality of careers and HE guidance available to them. And even when this is the case, things don’t always go to plan. For example, it is difficult to foresee that continuing a subject in which they had done well at GCSE may prove to be too much of a stretch for some, or that non-educational factors may change the picture for them. Working with such uncertainties is one of ways in which we careers guidance specialists must earn our corn.
There are various approaches we can take to helping the undecided to ensure that they make sound choices at A level and university destinations. For example, we might steer them towards facilitating subjects – those that Russell Group universities have identified as having admissions currency across a range of courses. More specifically, for those who are less than firm in their preferences for university, we may encourage them to consider applying after they have received their A level results. This removes at least some of the uncertainty from the process for them, and we do it more and more.
For those who are struggling to identify a specialism, we might make a point of highlighting the availability of liberal arts degrees which, initially at least, see students pursue a wider range of subject options thus allowing extra time to settle on their passion. Such programmes are well-established in the US, Canada and Europe, and an interesting new development has been the rising enthusiasm in UK universities for this approach.
Sound advice from school careers staff is very important, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we might be better advised to structure HE in a way that doesn’t require all young people to settle on specialism quite so early. Until such time, I would urge critics to pause before pointing the finger at schools – we careers and HE specialists do our best, but there are some things we simply can’t control.
On 18 June, Old Bedalians who are now studying at university will join the school’s Professional Guidance staff and a careers expert to talk to 6.1 students about their options. A broad range of courses and institutions will be represented, and it should prove to be a highly informative event.
By Vikki Alderson-Smart, Head of Professional Guidance