Education and the Examination Swindle – Part 4

Image from “Get the Best Grades Now Blog”

Editors note: The lovely Alicia Cuddeford has gracefully written a post to continue with our “Education and the Examination Swindle” series. As ever, I may or may not [suspense!] agree with her views, but I have written a few footnotes for the reader’s amusement. Enjoy!

Hello again TheCompBlog readers! Since Nicolas didn’t think that my post last year was complete rubbish, I have been invited back to write for him about this darn education that keeps inconveniencing my life. For those who don’t know who I am, I’m Alicia and I am a student in the grand old city of Winchester. I wrote a post for Nicolas last April about my opinions on secondary education which can be found here, but now, seeing as my past year at 6th form college is fresh in my mind, Nicolas thought it would be nice for me to share them.

I feel like I should probably introduce my college, because I’m told that it is quite prestigious. Peter Symonds College, or “Hogwarts” as it is commonly known by a street urchin like me, is one of the largest sixth form colleges in the country. Ben Ainslie and Jack Dee came here, something which Peter Symonds really get off on – newspaper articles are smeared along the walls to let us know that we too could achieve greatness, while also serving the purpose of allowing cynics like me to snort at them. As previously mentioned, it is in Winchester, therefore the target student is from an affluent family who shop at Waitrose and dress in Jack Wills clothing. Because of this, I initially thought that I wouldn’t fit in well here, but I was wrong.[1]

The main difference with college is that for the most part, the pupils want to be there. I know that this is changing but my year were given the option of either A Levels, an apprenticeship, employment or, for the daytime television loving young person, signing on. This ultimately means that hardly anyone is acting like they are better than you or messing up lessons for everyone else. Everybody becomes more mature and adult. These small social reasons really make a difference – after my first two months at college I became a completely different person.

Educationally, this helps a great deal. At college you don’t necessarily have a full day; you have free periods between lessons to allow you to get some extra studying done, relax or go into town if you don’t have any work. Also you don’t have a set time when you start or finish, so you can have a lie-in in the mornings some days or you may get times when you can go home by lunchtime. I found this much more beneficial as I no longer had the drudgery of waking up early every morning and spending six hours in a place I hated, with my concentration waning terribly after about five minutes of capture. There is much more moving around which, for me, makes it easier to stay awake on those six o’clock mornings.

In terms of support, I have needed the college for both educational and personal matters, and they have been brilliant. Focussing on education, I felt like my secondary school wasn’t really effective at supporting my needs because they thought I’d pass my GCSEs in any circumstance. At college, this changed. They took care to review my progress to try and rectify any problems that arose.

But nobody wants to hear positive anecdotes!

Maths.[2] It’s an incredibly important subject which is useful for a number of university courses and jobs. So when I see a college application form with a list of subjects, I search out maths and click on it. I was one of those maths students who was intelligent enough to get on the course, but not intelligent enough to realise that it was a terrible decision. I was awful at it, and I grew to hate it. Although it probably didn’t help that my teacher laughed in my face every time I failed an end-of unit test.

So, obviously, we’ve got this review structure in place. I tell my tutor that I want to switch to another subject within a week of actually being at college. Not allowed, try another week.
Next week: I still want to switch. No.
Fine, I think to myself, just go with it and coast along.


If you do, you will fail. And what’s the answer if you fail? Try really hard to get back on your feet. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when you have three other subjects to be getting on with, it just makes more sense to focus on them rather than putting all your effort into one subject and having the others suffer.

This is sort of in line with the sociological idea of the Educational Triage (Youdell) where pupils are split into three categories: “Those who will pass anyway”, “Borderline C/D” and “Hopeless cases”.

The borderline C/D pupils obviously get more attention because they are easier to help out than the hopeless cases and are more economical to help than the those who will pass anyway pupils. The only difference here is that the people who will pass anyway also get support if they need it. However, unlike secondary education, where teachers may be to blame for failure, it is in the student’s hands.

At Peter Symonds (and most other colleges I am aware of), there are regular “drop in” workshops for all subjects where you can catch up and get yourself into gear. There are many reasons I am probably going to fail maths but the main one is my lack of motivation.

Also, be fair, when you start A Level maths they do drill in the fact that you should only be there if you really enjoy the subject and are motivated to do it. However, preventing me from switching was really silly. Don’t get me wrong, I love maths, but my brain just doesn’t work that way.

My personal experiences of an otherwise brilliant maths department (I am not getting paid to say this) aside, there is actually a universally negative aspect of my college. And that is a little thing called General Studies.

A-Level General Studies or “Let’s waste one hour of your time every week when you could be sleeping or studying” is the most pointless qualification ever. Compulsory at Peter Symonds [3], you have one university-style lecture a week where they teach about anything. Well, there are specific “domains” such as scientific (a term used very loosely – and that’s coming from a maths failure), cultural and social. You then take papers based on these areas and have to answer a number of pointless questions and write essays and fail to resist the urge to “troll” it, as they say on the internet.

The reason for not taking General Studies seriously is pretty clear. First, they can fit the universities that accept it as an A-Level onto an A4 sheet in size 14 font. Secondly, it is examined by OCR; therefore they will probably pick out some wild error that violates Old English spelling rules and mark you down for not adhering to their pedantic standards. Finally, the questions are so frustrating. I genuinely encountered a question that said “Why should we not make estimates when undertaking scientific investigations?” I DON’T KNOW OCR, WHY IS THAT?! I have never proclaimed to be a science genius, but that question is just ridiculous. [4]

You may be failing to comprehend why a college with such a good reputation would include General Studies as a compulsory course. Money is the answer to your question. They gain extra funding from it, which becomes a vicious circle of more money, better results, more General Studies. More torture.

At the end of all that, my advice to future sixth formers is to make sure you are certain of what you want to take, and take it for the right reasons. You can always change your subjects if you feel uncomfortable, but this gets harder once your timetable has been set up. As vomit-inducing as it sounds: follow your heart. You’ll thank me later.

Thank you reading this. If you would like to contact me personally, you can do so through Twitter (@aliciacuddeford) or you can email me. I realise that as I am writing about a college in Winchester, I’m not really representative of the whole country. This is what research methods in psychology and sociology does to a person. I am sad because my findings cannot be extrapolated.

I’d love to hear your views if your experience is entirely different to mine, and would be happy to answer any questions about further education.

And finally, thanks again to Nicolas for inviting me to write for his blog. He really is too kind.

All the best,

Alicia Cuddeford

[1] We shop at Waitrose and my sister wears Jack Wills clothing…but my parents always tell her off about this “crap” she buys and how it is “nothing but rags”. Also, Waitrose is the only large supermarket close to us, so… yeah…

[2] I am fully aware of the dispute between the UK “Maths” and the US “Math”, [here for more info] but we are British! We spell “colour” with the “u” and use superior and comprehendible SI units, so accept that Celsius is better than Fahrenheit and that its pronounced Al-u-min-i-um (WITH the 3rd “i”) [“The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry prefers the use of aluminIum in its internal publications”] and get on with it.

[3]  Luckily, we are not forced to do this. Indeed, as Alicia so delicately pointed out, as the Russell Group of UK universities do not recognise this qualification, we don’t actually offer it. Yay for me!

[4] It’s a horribly worded question, and knowing OCR, probably has a ridiculous and ambiguous mark scheme, which does not at all reflect the actual answers of the students, as well; however, estimates are important in the way that they provide a possible range for the results to be in, but then again, what has GCSE science taught me? That F=MA and that’s about it. [note exaggeration!]


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