Education, Education, Education

Another hiatus, another post. Sadly, this is becoming a theme of sorts, and for that I must apologise. As 2014 draws to a close, I begin to think ahead to 2015 and what lies ahead in an important year. The greatest change I am expecting will be in my education,which provides the title for this post (it’s not because I sympathise with Tony Blair’s education policies, although I have stolen his motto).

With only six months of further education remaining, I can wonder where all the time has gone. Just over six years ago, I joined the school where I currently study and having stayed there for Sixth Form, I find that there is only a short amount of time before the parliament of owls scatters and looks for pastures (or trees) new. With a move upwards to higher education appearing almost certain, barring a complete disaster in the summer, this seems like the right time to appraise the education system that I have been in for over a decade.
Where to start? 2015 itself is a good place, due to the sweeping A-Level reforms that will be introduced for the next cohort of Year 12/Lower Sixth students (whatever you want to call them). It’s goodbye to modular exams, and greetings to the old linear system. There are many issues on which I must disagree with former education minister Michael Gove, but this is not one of them: it has become more and more apparent that linear exams allow a subject to be explored and tested in far greater detail and with greater flexibility than the modular system. The best example I know of comes from the MEI A-Level Mathematics course: the differentiation of trigonometrical functions is introduced in C3 (Core module 3), but the justification and proof is held back until C4. Surely it makes more sense to learn the two at the same time rather than separating them out?
That is the good part; what remains to be seen is the practicality of the reforms in certain subjects. Again, from my own experience, Latin and Greek provide the best examples: the present A-Level course involves a language module and a literature module (both prose and verse literature) at AS, and at A2, a prose module and a verse module, both of which combine language and literature work. I don’t quite see how this approach can practically be made linear. Any student of either subject would end up sitting an easier language paper which is only just beyond GCSE level, and the more advanced language sections of the prose and verse paper at the same time. The presence of the more advanced language work really renders the easier paper superfluous. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
I can’t really talk about education without opening up what is increasingly becoming an important debate, most particularly at private schools: A-Levels, or the International Baccalaureate (IB)? What I am about to say may surprise many of you – although I may appear strongly anti-IB, I’m actually quite in favour of the qualification and the ethos behind it on a general level; the reason why I’m doing A-Levels is more to do with my subject choices than anything else. In my personal opinion, if you want a broad-based education, do the IB. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, you’ll have many sleepless nights worrying about extended essays and ToK (theory of knowledge). Studying six subjects rather than four, with all the various permutations attached to the IB, is virtually certain to give you a more rounded education than any combination of A-Levels. In my mind, it boils down to a choice between what is right and what is easy (to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore).
There is one other choice, and over time, I have come to realise that it is a foolhardy one: trying to study more than 4 A-Levels. ‘How have you arrived at this conclusion?’, I hear you ask. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to study five subjects at AS Level. To make matters worse (for myself), I decided to take five entirely different subjects (Maths, Music, Latin, Greek and Economics); no Further Maths, no General Studies, no Critical Thinking. Looking back on it, it’s one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. The fact that I actually scored highly at AS Level is to my mind, irrelevant; I gained very little from studying Economics, and due to my heavy extra-curricular commitments, it became a living nightmare. There’s a point at which pushing oneself beyond one’s limits goes too far. So to sum up: if you can’t decide on four A-Levels and you want to study more than four subjects, please try and do the IB programme if your Sixth Form offers it.
On that note, I have another small gripe that is troubling me more and more, and it relates specifically to Economics. As I’ve already mentioned, I personally gained very little from actually studying Economics. Quite frankly, I could have learnt as much just from reading a textbook in my spare time. I’m still unable to ascertain how Economics is actually of academic benefit, yet more and more 16-year olds seem to jump on the Economics bandwagon every year. What’s wrong with the much more academically rigorous disciplines of the Classics? Those who know me well can probably see where this argument is going, and it’s something that I’ve highlighted in a previous post (see The Decline of Rome and Athens). Therefore, I also strongly disagree with the current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, who commented in November that humanities and arts subjects are pointless because they don’t lead to any obvious career. On that note, see the following blog post by a friend of mine, who I think accurately sums up an issue relating to this: http://thetopthreepercent.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/on-traditionalist-parents-you-must-become-doctor-read-in-indian-accent/
I’d like to finish with a point that is somewhat unusual coming from me, because it doesn’t involve me grumbling about anything (you may gasp in horror now). While preparing for my recent interview at the University of Cambridge (Clare College), somebody sitting nearby made a remark about the lengths to which people go to secure a university place. At the time, I simply nodded and returned to my notes on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and its links with the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 and the ‘rule of law’, and from there to Juvenal’s great question ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (who will guard the guards themselves?). I think that quite clearly illustrates my point. Having taken a step back after my interview to look at the broader picture, I find that I’m not alone here: I’ve seen (and heard) many people reading complex documents on linguistic phenomena, discussing convoluted biological models and trying to solve fiendish mathematical problems involving just as many letters of the alphabet as numbers. For all that teenagers get a bad reputation for being lazy louts who hang around in parks smoking and drinking alcohol, it seems there is some light at the end of the tunnel (he says, with his private school hat on).
To conclude: the UK education system has both huge advantages, and some fairly serious flaws, but in the end, it comes down to the choices we make, whether that is a choice of degree subject or a choice of A-Level subjects for those readers in Year 11.
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