Sunday, October 08, 2006

A reply from Jan Srameck

Amazingly, I've just received a comment on an earlier post about Jan Srameck, the young man who got A grades in 10 A-levels this summer, now studying economics at Cambridge. I reprint the reply, which I assume is from Jan himself, in full below

Having been alerted to this by a friend of mine, I think that I need to correct a few things which have been said, and to provide some explanations.

1) "Then we add economics, business studies and 'economics and business studies combined' - surely a blatant case of sitting exams for the sake of it? The amount of overlapping content must have been laughable."

not that you could have known this, but my school only taught E&B combined and that's the course I studied for the full 2 years..sitting the additional Economics/Business as separate A-levels was, in fact, partially a bet with several friends, partially a preparation for the AEA papers (formerly S-levels) in Economics and Business, which, being separate papers, would probably be even more difficult having studied the joint course only.

therefore, your argument is in fact wrong, as doing those 2 enabled me to do the more advanced stuff, in favour of which you argued later on

2) "ICT is a huge amount of work, but maybe not a significant challenge for him, especially if Jan is a hobbiest computer fan - which he may well be, with his strong flair for maths."

yes, it's a huge amount of work. there is no A-level which would be a significant challenge for a student with a broad range of talents, with the possible exception of art/music for those who don't have a particular flair for them..I hated my ICT A-level, but it's been a very good exercise in motivation to keep it, do the appalling coursework and learn for those pointless exams - and that's why I the time I found out that it wasn't a very good course, the only other option would have been to drop it - and I hate loosing.

3) "Then German - he's from the Czech Republic - can we assume a head start?"

any linguist will tell you that English and German are much closer than Czech and German, being from a completely different language families..if you assumed that I'd speak German because of geographical location, I can assure you that my family lives in the opposite part of the country, close to Slovakia/Poland rather than Germany.

in fact, prior to my AS-level course I had studied it for less than 2 years for 3 lessons a week, and my German was, honestly, the worst in my class when we started..coupled with the fact that my English was far from fluent when I arrived (not a surprise given that I had not even visited an English speaking country before then), being taught German in English in such circumstances was..a wonderful experience (my German teachers: you rock)

4) The school had nothing to do with this. Yes, my teachers were great in supporting me, but they were very far from pushing me to do this - in fact, the opposite was occasionally the case. History, as well as Politics, at A-level are equally difficult or academically stretching as most of the other A-levels. Jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam, and if you have a flair for the subject, high UMS shouldn't be a problem.

5) On a final point, I came to the UK knowing very little about the system and at the time decided to do Maths, Physics, German, E&B, ICT. Since everyone does GS, so did I. In Y13, I picked up FM as an obvious choice and that seemed to be the final combination. Doing AFM was purely because of my interest in Mathematics and this decision was actually made sometime in March/April, i.e. 2 months before those exams. The decision to take Economics and Business separately was made even later, partially because of my curiosity about stretching myself in terms of exams, partially as a preparation for the AEA papers.

I'm not sure whether I'd make the same choices if I were to re-live that year again, and I'm not sure whether it was the best use of my time either. It was, however, definitely worth it and a very valuable experience indeed; more and above, with 100% certainly, I used my time more wisely than a great majority of other students. It's fair to express your opinion, but belittling what I've done without knowing anything about me and other like-minded people who've done similar things in the past, is very far from being fair play.


Jan's results are an interesting case study in the A-level debate. When I posted, I was not out to get at him personally. To start at the end, I am really sorry Jan feels belittled by my post. I hoped in my posts around A-level results time to raise some questions but did not mean to ridicule, so I apologise to Jan if he feels my comments were unfair to him.

However, he must be aware that his unusual experience raises questions. Is this all we can offer the brightest and the best of our sixteen and seventeen year olds - racking up a large number of related A-levels? My main perspective in writing the original post was to question the approach of the education system in dealing with exceptionally bright teenagers, and his reply really does contribute to this. For him, the challenge of A-levels seems to be one of burdensome work for work's sake, rather than an intellectually stimulating experience (apart from his German lessons!) In addition, he believes that most exams can be done by jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam. This is a very telling statement. In the current climate of criticism of the A-level system, it is up to teachers to think seriously about the guidance we give the gifted student.

A few specific points raised in his post:
- Obviously I was completely wrong in my assumption that Jan already spoke German.
- I know all about the demands of ICT A-level - and I am not surprised he hated sweating through 'the appalling coursework', and found himself having to exercise steely self-discipline in order to complete something onerous and not very exciting. To anyone else in a similar situation, I suggest you study Computing instead. You will find this more conceptually challenging and certainly more invigorating. (Oh, and why not drop ICT, or indeed any subject that turns out to be a mistake, after completing the AS? That's not an admission of defeat!)
- The triple combination of Economics, Business Studies, and Combined Economics and Business Studies is an official forbidden combination, sorry. I suppose this does not really matter to Jan as he did the extra two subjects simply as a bet and had plenty of other subjects under his belt. I can see that Jan was limited in his choices by the curriculum of the school, and that if he was sitting the AEAs in Economics and Business, it would be necessary to cover the extra content, so he might as well sit the A-level papers. In fact, doing the AEAs in Economics and Business seems a very worthwhile achievement and one that did not come out in the newspapers.
- However, I am not sure what Jan's argument against History and Politics is. I honestly think that there's more to it than read[ing] through one or two mark schemes before the exam. Even the very bright need to read in depth to score the highest UMS marks in History. I stand by my suggestion that to tackle either of these subjects (or indeed English Literature) is good advice for any student hoping to study at a Russell Group University.

In general, gifted students are always limited by the curriculum offered by their particular school. However, if the school is not able to stretch them, there are other options available. One is to study with the Open University while still at school. The OU now offers a wide variety of modules to sixth formers, who can be funded and supported through the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme.

I am very appreciative that Jan took the time to reply to my blog. My conviction that he is both brilliant and hardworking remain unchanged. I really do wish him well, congratulate him on his success, and I am quite sure his teachers at Bootham do, too. I know he will find Cambridge both a challenge and a delight, and a very different experience to A-levels.

But I will return to the main point of my original post. How do we advise exceptional students in the current A-level system? Do as many A-levels as you can?

After considering Jan's post, if I had a similarly motivated and talented young person in front of me, I would advise them thus. Do 'less, but better'; seek out challenging and appropriate subjects; look for extra-curricular opportunities that enhance your skills and allow you to diversify, and take the time to read widely both within and around your subject.

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