New Cambridge University A-level subject guidelines have been published, including a list of A-level subjects that it says 'provide a less effective preparation for our courses.' I first heard about it on Tuesday, which was the day I returned to work to start enrolling new students onto advanced courses for next year. M's comment on a provious post of mine led me to Boris Johnson's thoughts on the matter (I would not normally have wandered there myself) and the bewitching monicker 'crunchy' for the subjects that Cambridge refers to as traditional academic subjects.
By Friday this week I had taken part in many conversations about crunchy subjects as we carried out the usual painstaking task of helping students choose their next step. As usual, there are the students who have completely unrealistic goals; their schools may have encouraged them to aim for the top - and I don't blame them - but it's heart-breaking to have to say to a 16 year old with 5 C grades and 4 D grades, the result of much hard work, that their chances of studying medicine are slim to none. On the other hand, there is the equally difficult task of advising very bright young people, who have come from families with no knowledge or experience of higher education; while they might not be open to the idea now, in twelve months time we might be encouraging them to apply for Cambridge. (It takes that long to grow their faith in themselves and to work through the many stereotypes that they - and their parents - might hold.) We have always advised students in this position to make sure that they include some traditional, essay based subjects, even if they want a more practical or creative focus. So the Cambridge list is nothing new.
This article in the Guardian by historian Francis Beckett made me think further. I am inclined to agree with this:
Parks claims that, far from being elitist, this is an effort towards getting students from poorer backgrounds and tough inner-city schools to Cambridge. "It's not academic snobbery at all," he says. "We want those who might wish to come here to avoid ruling themselves out by taking inappropriate subjects at A-level." Much better to spell it out on the website, where anyone can see it, than keep it as a bit of insider knowledge, known and understood at St Posh's Academy for the Gentry, but never heard about at East Grunge comprehensive.
Far better to be blunt about it, rather than rely on whatever process Oxford claims to use.
Oxford seems also to have given up on the idea that A-levels can be the fine-tuning mechanism that will infallibly select the brainiest of every generation. "We have developed our own ways of discriminating," says the spokeswoman.
I disagree, however, with some of the specific criticisms in the website:
The English department insists, understandably, on English literature, recommends languages and history, and has encouraging words to say about maths and science. And then it adds: "Although drama or theatre studies may possibly be accepted as a third A-level subject, colleges tend to prefer applicants to show more range in their skills and interests." Drama and theatre studies are, of course, among the discouraged A-levels. Parks's explanation is that a performance-based A-level is not good preparation for a Cambridge literature degree.
What's wrong with that? Studying English literature at one of the oldest Universities in Britain is a million miles from Drama A-level. And I'm not denigrating Drama A-level at all; it's very rigorous and extraordinarily hard work. However, I would cautiously suggest that drama and English literature are very different areas of academic study. More significantly, to say that Drama A-level is not an effective preparation for English at Cambridge tells us much about the nature of the English department there, the scopeand limitations of the course, and the emphases and approaches that define the discipline there. Just because Oxford and Cambridge have such high status it does not make them the best choice for every gifted student.
Accountancy is another subject on the list; Beckett questions this, too. 'So a mathematician does not use the skills learned in accountancy?'
Er, no. I wouldn't say that accountancy did teach you any specific mathematical skills you wouldn't gain from Maths and Further Maths A-levels. It will teach you lots about applying mathematical methods to the world of money. Accountants use mathematical skills, not the other way around.
I'm glad that the list is controversial. A-levels should be constantly scrutinised and we should expect to wrestle with how we can offer new disciplines alongside old-fashioned favourites.
And anything that uncloaks the mystery of applying to Oxbridge is a good thing, especially when such myths abound. (A fifty-something NQT I once worked with had to be taken to task for telling the students 'not to bother applying to Cambridge unless you have a family member who went there' - and this was in a school with a steady flow of successful applicants!) It's really good to think that a student in a school with no tradition of helping their students to apply for Oxbridge can get access to solid advice; we will just have to grit out teach if it makes us feel a bit squeamish. I desperately want more students from the state system to go to Cambridge Therefore it's vitally important that the university figures out ways of picking out the students who genuinely have the greatest talents in those traditional academic subjects in which the University specialises. It's so hard to distinguish this type of student in a field where every institution is grimly focused on exam sucess above all else, producing phalanxes of students groomed to within an inch of their lives in exam technique and the complex tactics needed to suceed in the modern A-level. By being honest, I think Cambridge have been very brave, and should be commended.