Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The crunchy and the smooth

I'm sure there's a specific blogging way to do this, but I don't know it. This post has come about because of a site posted in M's comment on my previous post... The link is Boris Johnson on Physics A-level. Boris, who according to They Work for You , asks most of his questions in Parliament about Capita, Capita Group, Community Hospitals, Swill Feeding and Swill studied at Eton and Oxford and to my great surprise seems to have been quite a scholar. (It obviously takes a lot of brains to play the fool.) He writes here about this list of subjects , published by Cambridge University (towards the bottom, under course requirements.) Cambridge Admissions Tutors will only give offers to students who have two A-levels in subjects not on this list. They must, instead, be what Boris calls 'crunchy' subjects.

Two things to note...

Firstly, Psychology and Sociology - all derided from time to time by commentators - are crunchy!

Secondly, the majority of the 'smooth' subjects (i.e. on the Not Suitable For Cambridge list) have practical elements which require significant skill; just not skills that are relevant for the range of traditional courses offered at Cambridge. For example, Media Studies, which includes film-making, Drama which includes acting, Dance and Photography... These are not 'easier' per se, they are different.

Personally, the hardest learning experience of my life was participating in a Drama workshop as an adult. Drama A-level would be a huge struggle for me. I doubt I could get one of those 'easy' A's. (I have a full measure of pre Curriculum 2000 crunchy A-levels; and I live with a Drama teacher so I know what the subject entails) The lowest exam mark I ever got was for Art, in which I was examined for the first (and last) time aged fourteen. It was an utterly humiliating experience for me - I was a straight A student up till then.

Sure, physics ain't a pushover. And we definitely need more physicists and chemists applying to university - that's a whole different issue. But as I say to students when they say 'which A-levels are easiest?' - it depends on what you find easy.

Actually, I think Cambridge have phrased it rather well.
The list below details the A level subjects that provide a less effective preparation for our courses. To be a realistic applicant, a student will normally need to be offering two traditional academic subjects

They are reflecting the fact that they offer only traditional, academic courses at a world class standard delivered in a conventional way. In order to realistically study those courses, a particular set of gifts is needed, evidenced by a particular set of results. That's not a scandal.

The scandal, as Boris has identified, is that 'we live in a mad world of league tables' and this culture has distorted schools' advice to students and the curriculum options made available.

There's nothing wrong with saying that subjects are different. But as I commented in my post on Jan Sramek, we all have subjects we find easier and subjects that present a significant challenge (in Jan's case, why did he accumulate 10 A-levels rather than stretching himself by taking fewer and including some literary or essay subjects instead?) Let's not fall into the easy labeling of 'hard' and 'easy', 'crunchy' and 'smooth' and join in the eternal denigration of some subjects.

I interviewed a young woman today for admission to a post-sixteen course who had low grades in some crunchy subjects at GCSE, but an A* in Textiles and another in Art. She is obviously very talented indeed in ways I can't imagine. I hope we can put her onto a course where she will flourish, be challenged, and be able to access the top universities or institutions in her field. Which will not be Oxford or Cambridge. But that's fine because she wants to be a fashion designer. Not a journalist and Tory politician...


M said...

Let's not fall into the easy labeling of 'hard' and 'easy', 'crunchy' and 'smooth' and join in the eternal denigration of some subjects...

you mean like you did..."Firstly, Psychology and Sociology - all derided from time to time by commentators - are crunchy"

Further more, whilst everyone is valuable and every subject has worth. In the looming energy war, that the stage is being set for in the Persian gulf. When the oil Sheiks become too bold and demand even more arms deals / money / harrier jets that we want to give them. Who are we going to turn to build / man / maintain the inevitably built Nuclear power plants, or if the Irish are to be believed the perpetual motion machines - it certianly isn't going to be a Drama student or a psychology graduate is it ?

In Maslow's posh pyramid - it isn't Drama and Art and theatre that's at the basis is it ? No - Air, Water, Food, Shelter - I look towards Crunchy then for the people to provide these things.

Pepperpot said...

Are you arguing that we need to force kids to go crunchy to save the world?

At post sixteen, we are looking at building on what skills a student has acquired. Saying to a student that they should study nuclear physics because it's more important for the planet, when they have better grades in drama, is not going to help.

The issue of science in compulsory education is a whole different kettle of fish and one I am not going to witter on about now.

M said...

Force no. Planet... don't care - for the good of the country, maybe.

Did those chaps who stomped on the Hun want to be in a muddy good for nothing field in France, no of course not. They did it for a greater good.

On a serious note, no don't forece such a shift like that, but if a kid has some talent towards the crunchy subjects don't let them back out like some wet fish (dreadful mixed metaphore i know) make them stand up to the challenge.

AC said...


'Two things to note...

Firstly, Psychology and Sociology - all derided from time to time by commentators - are crunchy!'

Come on - you are a teacher! You must know that analysis of pupils with similar ability (take any objective standard you wish) show that such pupils will do better at Psychology and Sociology than, say, Physics! Not all subjects are *examined* at equal difficulty, or are inherently rigorous logically - to think otherwise is a wishful-thinking fallacy of senior management teams and league table compilers. You have just lost one potential reader.


Pepperpot said...

Well, a brief hello and goodbye then, AC! It was very nice to have your readership, albeit only briefly. Does your disdain extend to Cambridge, who published the list?