Education and the examination swindle – part 5

Image from CSL CartoonStock

Look at this! I am getting back into rhythm of posting again! Let’s hope that the trend continues! In further good news, it looks like my social life is taking a turn for the better and is slowly growing outside of Twitter (although I still like my Twitter friends, as demonstrated by me asking Alicia Cuddeford to write a rather eloquent post), so we shall have to see how that progresses, but it should be noted that people say “you cannot be a cynic or complain too much, otherwise you won’t have any friends”. Although this may be sound advise, I am stubborn, so here continues the rather negative series of “Education and the Examination Swindle”, but more specifically, my A-Level choices and the realisation that the further education system [how education at 17-18 counts as “further”, only the screwed up system knows] is flawed in its most basic constituents. So, allow me to tell you the tale of my entrance into this uniquely flawed system.

We begin during the spring term of this past academic year. All GCSE students, dutifully revising for the upcoming mocks and eventually, the actual GCSEs, were handed out the school A-Level choices booklet. For a bit of context, the GCE A-Level, or General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, is the qualification taken at ages 17 and 18, with it split up into two smaller qualifications: the AS and the A2. Both of these combined give the A-Level qualification, and the scores scored in each examined module contribute to the overall A-Level grade. Convoluted, right?


Anyway, my school only offer the A-Level qualification. There is an alternative, namely the International Baccalaureate, or IB, noted world-wide as a challenging qualification. I would go as far as to say that it is more noted than the A-Level, although their relative difficulties is up for debate. The IB requires that the candidate takes maths and English, whereas the A-Level does not. In addition, the IB let’s you take 6 or 7 subjects at various levels (higher and standard), while with A-Level, only 4 at a fairly advanced level. I am referring to the amount that an realistically be taught within two years, though. Personally, I believe that the IB is the better qualification: it gives the candidate a better basic, all-encompassing education, while not severely limiting University and indeed career choices later on. Moreover, I was speaking to some German students this week of my age, and their “Abitur” system, which requires them to take maths, a humanity, a science and a language, and look at the German economy now…

Conversely, with A-Levels, for example, I MUST have very specific subjects to get into my university choice of preference, but if I have no idea what I want to do, I need to take the widest variety of subjects possible, which may not be a possibility without jeopardising my ability to give myself a good all-round education. one could say that the A-Level is more university-like. Depending on your situation, this may be ideal. Indeed, Ned Summers from The Aftermatter knows exactly that he wants to do Physics at University, hence why he likes the A-Level system, but I still have a wide variety of possibilities. Furthermore, I believe that education at 17/18 should not be job preparation, but continue to give students a great all-round education, with which they can go into university, career or an apprenticeship with. Hence, I prefer the IB, but since I love my school and the only comparable school that offers the IB does not have a decent technology department, I have to make the best of a crappy situation.

So, I was handed this daunting A-Level choices booklet and a bunch of university prospectuses, including the Cambridge one [no pressure there then], to choose my A-Levels. Luckily, my school does not offer vocational qualifications, like photography or media studies (these are not recognised by Oxbridge), so pupils need to carefully consider which subjects they will take and not just opt for the easier ones. Anyway, this hit me rather early, so I panicked and started visiting the various continental university advisors, seeing which A-Levels would allow me to take an Engineering course, while still leaving open the possibility of going into bio-medical sciences, genetics or bio-mechanics. In the end, having seen that the Lisbon Recognition Convention, or the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, allows a student to study anywhere in the EU, as long as he has the correct qualifications that will grant him or her access to the equivalent course in his or her home country, and given that US universities couldn’t give less of a damn, I decided to base my decisions on the entry requirements of Imperial College London and Cambridge.

My first step was to list the subjects I wanted to take. There about 12 subjects there! Note that for any engineering degree, maths and further maths are “highly recommended”, which is code for “take it or don’t bother applying”. So, I had to take them, as well as physics. There was no argument about that. The problem is that they take up 3 AS blocks out of my 5, but if I take further maths only to AS and not A2, it frees up that slot the following year so I can take 4 A2s as well as further maths AS, although you can really only take 4 A2s, but who said I was not above cheating the system?

Complicated? Yep. Necessarily so? Nope.

So, I have two spare slots. I looked at the requirements for all the biological stuff, and intestinal, they only wanted chemistry, with biology listed as “helpful”, which means “we think this qualification will give you good background knowledge, but its ultimately useless”. Alas, I chose Chemistry.

Now, the 5th choice was a bit controversial. I wanted to do English, but painfully came to the conclusion that it would not help much in my engineering ambitions. I considered Geography. Indeed, I even wrote it down on the initial selection sheet, as I wanted to do a humanity, but then the computing teachers started giving me some friendly pressure to do computing, which is understandable, as there are only 6 people doing it this year and I expressed interest in it earlier. I also wanted to do an Engineering Extended Project, as it was a different and interesting type of qualification, but then I came the big deciding factor: I wanted to have the option to go to an Austrian/Swiss/German university, so, naturally, they require that you do German. I figured that a second language is useful in engineering, it’s different from the quantitative subjects I had chosen, and that the fact that I already understood a lot of German (my father speaks it), would make life a bit easier. So, German it was!

Of course, I am still being advised to take Biology, but the study of ECGs and ecosystems bores me: it’s the genetics that I find fascinating and ripe for innovation! So I will be pestering the master in charge of the genetics society at my school to let me become involved, despite the fact that I don’t do biology, and as we all know, I am very stubborn when it comes to this. Let the pestering begin!

There we have it, my A-Level thought process. I am still being pressured (in a friendly manner!) to drop German and take the third science or computing; Indeed, as are my own thoughts, but I can enter next year in the knowledge that my choices have not cut off any opportunities for me, but in the constant regret that my school does not do IB. Anyway, you make the best of the situation, whatever the case!

If anyone would like advice/thoughts on this matter, or indeed anything else not even remotely related to this, go ahead. I don’t bite!

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