Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Sixth Form Qualifications for work and higher education

With school leavers last year just as likely to want to obtain work as go to University (approaching the famous goal of Tony Blair's premiership: "by 2010, 50% of school-leavers will enter Higher Education"), and the options for different educational pathways becoming wider, rather than narrower, I thought it might be useful to look at the choices of qualifications for students who want to keep their options open and match their personal career aspirations. In keeping with the traditional essay in a University exam, I am going to "compare and contrast" the various options from the joint perspective of a "classroom assistant" at the Life Sciences UTC in Liverpool during a recent two year secondment, and that of an "experienced" University tutor and external examiner at a wide range of UK Universities. In addition, my own experience of sixth form, a good Liverpool grammar school in the 1970s, will undoubtedly colour my views. I shall confine myself to the Sciences here, mainly because I am not competent to comment on the Arts and Humanities!

The sixth form experience is made up of a number of factors including the location of the school or college, its reputation (league tables!), its staff, its intake, as well as the support from family and friends, which as you will be awarecan be rather variable. I can't possibly address all of the aforementioned issues here,  and I wont. Instead, I want to focus on the alternative academic pathways that are available to Y12 students. The best way to describe the alternative pathways is to show the relationship between the proportion of students entering University and their qualifications. The Guardian reported (in a review of the 2015 "end of cycle" UCAS report):

The UCAS data also showed that many students are applying to university with qualifications other than A-levels. Last year the number accepted onto degree courses holding BTEC qualifications – the equivalent to A-levels, usually in vocational subjects such as business studies – rose to 85,000 (out of over 400 000 applicants) double the number that held BTECs in 2008.

The graph above may come as a surprise to many of you (it did to me!). It is clear that the number of students applying for University places with conventional A Level qualifications is far from the norm I had expected and, while BTEC student numbers are rising significantly, other qualifications including the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Scottish Highers (SQA), still remain very low in number. So what's the difference between these different routes? And, how do you decide which route is best suited to your individual abilities and career objectives?

You must decide with your teachers, which pathway is best for you. 

This is easy to say, but what factors will be important?  So let's take a look, and start from the end, and work backwards!

The first thing to consider is the entry requirements in terms of qualifications that are required by your "dream" course at University? [I shall discuss school leaver job opportunities in a follow up post]. When I was at school, my favourite subject was Chemistry, but I was interested in the molecular side of Biology as well. I didn't know what I was going to do with a degree in Biochemistry, but that seemed to match my interests and abilities. If you look at the UCAS statistics today, they show the national trends, but they don't really make it easy to decide on a personal level. What if you have your heart set on a course in Biochemistry at one of the following  Universities: Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores, Manchester, University College London, Dundee, Nottingham Trent and Lancaster. [If you follow the links you will see the details summarised below.] I should say that many Universities deliver programmes in Biomedical Sciences and rather less in Biochemistry. However, you should familiarise yourself with searching Google: enter the degree subject, entry requirements and the city you are interested in: eg "Biomedical Sciences Entry Requirements Bristol". Here are my search results at a selection of institutions for Biochemistry.

Sheffield A levels AAB (including A in Chemistry) or BTEC DDD + interview
Sheffield Hallam  280 points from at least two GCE/VCE A levels to include biology and chemistry with at least 80 points from one of these subjects or BTEC National qualifications including suitable chemistry and biology modules. We do not accept general studies A level
Liverpool ABB (Including Chemistry and Biology) no BTEC
Liverpool John Moores (unavailable for comparison today)
Manchester A levels AAB (A in Chemistry, Physics or Maths) no BTEC
UCL A levels AAA no BTEC 
Lancaster AAB or BTEC DDD
Dundee AAB or BTEC MDD
Nottingham Trent 300 UCAS Tariff points from up to four qualifications (two of which must be A-Level equivalent, including Biology at grade B). Biology at grade B. No BTECs.

As a quick comparison, let's see what a search for Biology and Chemistry brings at Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores.


Sheffield A levels ABB or A level Biology + DD in BTEC 
Sheffield Hallam  280 points from at least two GCE/VCE A levels including at least 80 points in biology or BTEC National qualifications where the subject content includes chemistry and biology modules. We do not accept general studies A level.
Liverpool  ABB (Including Chemistry and Biology) or BTEC
DDD in a relevant subject with at least 120 Level 3 credits at Distinction

Liverpool John Moores  Minimum number of A Levels required: 2 (Subject specific requirements: Biology or a related science at Grade C or above).  BTEC : Acceptable only when combined with other qualifications. 


Sheffield A levels ABB (with at least a B in Chemistry) no BTEC
Sheffield Hallam   280 points from at least two GCE/VCE A levels including 80 points in chemistry. We do not accept general studies A level. No BTEC
Liverpool  ABB (Two Sciences including Chemistry) or BTEC D*DD
Liverpool John Moores Minimum number of A Levels required: 3 Subject specific requirements: At least Grade B in A level Chemistry plus 2 other A levels Extended diploma subjects / grades required: DDM - Only BTECs with a strong Chemistry content will be considered.

What's the take home message? Both Life Sciences and Chemistry (as an example of the Physical Sciences) demand high grades at A level, and acceptance of BTECs is variable, and sometimes a double distinction is required alongside a single A level, BTECs alone must be triple distinction (and sometimes with a merit). How do these entry requirements match the quality of the Departments that deliver the courses? Are they able to demand such high entry grades? The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) produced the following rankings  for the above Institutions in the Biological Sciences (j stands for joint and not all Universities were represented in this category. Lancaster, John Moores and Nottingham Trent returned all of their staff in the Life Sciences to a separate unit of assessment, called Professions Allied to Medicine, where they achieved the following positions:  John Moores (67th), Nottingham Trent (j 33rd) and (Lancaster 25th).

Biological Sciences

Sheffield University (j 4th)
Sheffield Hallam University (37th)
Liverpool University (29th)
Liverpool John Moores University (no return)
Manchester University (31st)
Nottingham Trent University (no return)
Dundee University (j 2nd)
University College London (23rd)
Lancaster University (no return)


Sheffield University (j 2nd)
Sheffield Hallam University (no return)
Liverpool University (1st)
Liverpool John Moores University (no return)
Manchester University (21st)
Nottingham Trent University (no return)
Dundee University (no return)
University College London (j 16th)
Lancaster University (26th)

In terms of the teaching quality, this is currently unavailable through HEFCE (the organisation that judges quality in Universities: this is coming soon: the Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF), but the Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) gives the following general satisfaction ratings for the courses above:

Biological Sciences

Sheffield University (100%)
Sheffield Hallam University (93%)
Liverpool University (84%)
Liverpool John Moores University (88%)
Manchester University (88%)
Nottingham Trent University (55%)
Dundee University (94%)
University College London (88%)
Lancaster University (100%)

Chemistry (MChem apart from BSc at Sheffield Hallam)

Sheffield University (100%)
Sheffield Hallam University (92%)
Liverpool University (96%)
Manchester University (97%)
Nottingham Trent University (100%)
University College London (94%)
Lancaster University (89%)

You should use the information in order to decide what is the  best choice for you. If you apply the all-round excellence criteria then a high score in both would place Sheffield and Liverpool Universities good choices for both subjects. However, what are the other factors to consider?

Location. How far away from home do you want to live? Is the train route affordable (routes through London tend to be expensive)? Do you want to live in a vibrant city (Manchester, Liverpool) a smaller city (Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol), a less urban location (Oxford,  Exeter, Reading). Do you like the campus style of University (eg Warwick, Lancaster or York). Do you want to be beside the seaside! Do you want access to sports facilities? To be near a National level sports ground for Football, Rugby (don't forget the cricket season is mainly in the summer holidays!) Do you want to be close to good music venues, cultural opportunities? Maybe London or Edinburgh are your dream cities? If you aspire to make it to Oxford or Cambridge are you realistic in both your academic potential (straight As) and your interview technique?

All of these issues should be discussed with your teachers and family. Importantly, you must take ownership of your ambitions and make sure combine realism with an appropriate level of challenge.

Institutional Reputation. Have you heard of the Institution to which you are considering applying? Have your friends and teachers? Does it have a high ranking nationally (eg Sunday Times, Guardian or Times Higher Ed, University League Tables, where they combine many criteria, not just my academic overview). Does the University feature in the reputable world league tables? Such as the  Jiao Tong  ranking? Some cities (like Liverpool) have Universities offering considerably different experiences. Cambridge and Oxford between them have four Universities in the centre of the cities. You may not meet the entry requirements for an Oxford College, but what about Oxford Brookes? Or similarly Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. You might have fallen in love with Sheffield, but you don't feel confident of getting the necessary grades  for the University of Sheffield. You may (not always of course) find a lower entry bar at Sheffield Hallam University, which is an excellent institution, again offering complementary courses and styles of education. Oh yes and it is in Sheffield!

Do you have a long term plan? My own career path developed at each stage of my education. Having decided on Biochemistry, I was lucky enough to have chosen well: both University and subject. I then realised that I wanted to become an "expert" in one aspect of the subject, and decided to work towards a degree mark that would open the doors to a PhD. After a very slow start, my research work took a turn for the better in my final PhD year and I was able to seriously contemplate an academic career. It is true to say however that I had doubts along the way and so to did the people who interviewed me! However, I was fortunate enough to secure a position which has given me immense satisfaction as a career choice. There are a couple of general points to consider in Science. A degree is now almost a given requirement for a professional job. Moreover if you wish to consider a PhD, you are strongly advised to consider the 4 year degree option, often called a Master level degree (Chemistry degrees are mainly MChem and many Life Sciences degrees incorporate a fourth year either in academic research or in an industrial setting). As PhD opportunities become increasingly competitive, applicants with a fourth year of research experience will be hard to beat at interview! You should discuss this with academics at any open day you attend.

Returning to the qualifications on offer in the sixth form, with a realistic idea of what you are capable of academically and how well this is matched by the entry requirements, I now want to ask a different type of question. Is there any significant difference in the curriculum if you take an A level or a BTEC If we look at the Biology curriculum as described on the official web sites for each qualification, I can't see any major differences: all provide a coherent and comprehensive set of topics from the fundamentals to the contemporary, with a level of "context" provided where appropriate. I would probably argue that the content of the BTEC in Applied Science contains more relevant content than the A Level curriculum in Biology and Chemistry, as a suitable preparation for University. There are several providers of A Levels including AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC . So, even a single qualification has a number of "flavours". [And remember the school pays around £20-40 per student per A Level examination depending on the board!] Does it make any difference which curriculum you are studying? Looking through the online curriculum materials; not really.  

Most of my colleagues complain about freshers' lack of depth in the basics; but able students with good grades in any of the above A Level courses will find University courses in the Sciences provide them with an appropriate level of challenge. Perhaps the major advantage in the A level pathway, is the focus on examinations. Progression through some Universities can be dominated by examination based assessments, whereas other establishments focus on coursework assessment see this article in the Daily Telegraph. Some courses provide this information, if they don't email the director of studies. The question you need to ask yourself, is whether you are a student who performs well in exams, or one who excels at coursework. Most students I have met know the answer to this question! The detailed contents of the units or modules for all qualifications can be found on the official webs sites and related resource sites. In my view the differences in content are insignificant. However, the different experiences of studying for an A level (with a focus on examinations) and  BTECS (with a focus on coursework) is probably the key issue in ensuring you match the profile of a typical student at a particular University. On a final note, anecdotally, I have been informed by colleagues in subject areas that require a strong aptitude for applied maths, that additional support from the school maths department for such students would be enormously helpful for students wishing to take Physical Sciences and Engineering courses for example.


I realise this is quite a lengthy post and so let me try and pick out the key points. I said at the start I would compare and contrast. I hope I have by comparing the entry requirements of a selection of Universities and set these alongside their externally assessed reputations in research and teaching. Entry requirements are very similar at institutions with high and low ratings: so bear this in mind!

Realism and self insight. It is pointless dreaming of a career as a doctor or a vet if you and your teachers do not think that you will obtain straight As at A level. For whatever reason! There are alternative careers in professions allied to medicine and veterinary science that may be a much better match for you academic abilities and may prove to be a much more satisfying career path which you can plan for and work towards, rather than placing all of your eggs in one basket, and frantically rescuing your University options on the 18th August, 2016! 

Exams versus coursework. The BTEC route will soon combine a low level of examination (in Applied Science at least) with a significant amount of coursework. This is in my own view a sensible direction, since it offers the opportunity to prepare for the inevitable level of examinations that will be part of any University degree, and plays to the strengths of those students who excel when given the time to immerse themselves in self-directed study. It is up to the Universities to modify their teaching, learning and support programmes if they value the diversity of their student body, and do not see A level entry as the only "gold standard" qualification. However, for now, it is important to ask representatives of your Universities of choice what proportion of students have BTEC qualifications and to ask if there are any data on how their progress compares that of colleagues starting from an A level platform of sixth form experience.

Explore your own strengths and weaknesses. We are all better at some things than others. It is normal. And then there are occasionally one or two things that we are exceptionally good at, which sets us apart from others. However, more often than not we don't recognise this until later in life. Some of the characteristics I see in students I have taught over many years that compensate for a less than brilliant academic performance in Biochemistry (and I include myself in this category), include a broad general knowledge, fluency in language (written or spoken), strong leadership skills, loyalty, reliability, attention to detail, a strong work ethic, a good listener, a team player, caring, presentable, resilient, compassionate. I could go on: and usually do! Most of these characteristics aren't on the A level syllabus or part of any BTEC units. They do feature heavily in the work place and they will influence your future career considerably. Maybe not today, but at some critical point in the future. So why not start by asking yourself and your close friends and family to pick out the characteristics that they think define you best.  

Image result for jefferson dobFinally, I shall end on a quote from someone who I believe was a remarkable individual, an intellectual, a reformer and leader, whose birthday is on Wednesday next, when he would be in years, exactly the temperature in degrees Kelvin of ice: 273! Who said, wisely:
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

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