A Level Results: are we too university focused?

Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, A level students find out their results today. Will their grades be enough to get them into the university course that they want? For those who don’t, it’s likely that they’ll feel that their whole lives have been blighted and their opportunities for career success blighted. This is because we have come to equate success with a university education when in fact there are many other routes to a happy, fulfilling, lucrative career. Do we put too much pressure on our children to go to university?

Christine Jardine, former Special Adviser to Nick Clegg and recently candidate in the Aberdeen Donside by-election wrote for the Scotsman on this theme last week when Scotland’s Higher results came out.

Envelopes, text messages and e-mails across the country will bring the answer to the question that will have kept teenagers awake much of last night.

“Have I got what I need for the university or course I want?”

Over our dinner table on Sunday, while discussing everyone’s plans for the week, our teenager told us: “Monday I’ve got training. Tuesday I get my results. So Wednesday will be crisis management.”

She was joking. I hope.

There’s no doubt that she, and many of her peers, will believe that 12 years in school will come down to the answer to that one question.

But should it? Are we putting too much emphasis, and with it pressure, on one set of results and one educational path?

Too many teenagers I know are convinced that their future will be determined, and their educational success judged, by how many A grades they have today.

I sometimes wonder if we are losing sight of the fact that there is more to education than a fistful of Highers.

She argues that defining educational success by exam results alone has pushed some students along a path that simply doesn’t suit them:

It’s often difficult to avoid the suspicion, however, that political interference a generation ago, which put all the emphasis on rating schools’ performances in terms of Highers passed, is still tilting education towards a cookie-cutter approach to producing university-ready youngsters.

And are those who don’t quite fit that mould offered the solution for them, or do they have to make the best of a pattern that suits others?

Again, pressure to conform and get those Highers.

As the child of a working class household, where I was the first to go to university, I find the focus particularly disappointing.

Not all of my friends, or siblings for that matter, went to university. But they all have good careers and successful lives. As engineers, electricians, nurses, joiners and in a variety of other careers they have achieved success, and often built their own businesses, because they chose the path that was best for them.

I worry that too few of our children are given the chance, or the encouragement to explore those other options.

She added that her visits to employers had revealed skills shortages in jobs which do not require a degree:

At one power company I heard how they had taken the initiative to visit schools and tell youngsters about the careers they could have.

Too often they found that the pupils simply had no idea that there was a quality career out there that didn’t demand a degree, or that if it did their employers would support them through it.

Similarly, a butcher I know is struggling to find the trained staff it will take to sustain a business that has been successful for decades and given him and his family an enviable standard of living.

It’s not the supermarkets that are the main threat to his business, it’s the skills shortage. Our obsession with Highers and university is, ironically, steering talent away from areas where it is needed.

One of the first things I read this morning was a series of tweets from Jake Humphrey, who, for me, will always be the best Formula 1 presenter of all time. He didn’t get good grades in his A levels, but was still able to follow his dreams. He has some wise advice:

He made the most of the opportunities available to him, a £5 per week job at Rapture TV which led into presenting and working for CBBC. And when he was told he wasn’t qualified to work in sports presenting, he took that with a pinch of salt.



For those going through clearing, I should also add that Liberal Democrat campaigner Paula Keaveney, who knows about these things from the university side, has some advice you should read.

I agree with Christine that the emphasis on university as the only path to success is unhelpful and that we should be looking at each school pupil and helping them towards the career that best suits their skills and personal attributes.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The sad thing is that the systems is NOT producing “university ready youngsters”; instead, the concentration on grades over education is producing students who enter university completely unprepared for a proper education and, instead, are obsessed with getting marks and believing that the whole point of learning is to get good grades on the test.

    Education shouldn’t be there primarily to classify people according to ability; but rather to enable everyone to be all they can be and provide society with fulfilled, rounded individuals capable of engaging with politics, understanding and interacting with the world around them and, of course, making a positive contribution to our economy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Aug '13 - 1:59pm

    For those who don’t, it’s likely that they’ll feel that their whole lives have been blighted and their opportunities for career success blighted. This is because we have come to equate success with a university education when in fact there are many other routes to a happy, fulfilling, lucrative career.

    It’s not just this, it’s also this obsession with ranking, so that if you don’t get into the “right” university, that’s considered to have blighted your whole life. It is a reflection of the bias in our national media people that often the impression is given that (note Caron, I mean here in England) that there are only two universities which are really “right” (which are the ones many of the top media people went to). See how the word “better” when used about universities is used to mean “higher in the league table” with almost no regard to any other aspects. We even now have a feature whereby students who have accepted a place at one university can break that agreement and go to a “better” one if they get higher than expected A-levels. The result is that lower-ranking universities lose what would be their best students, at a late date when it is hard to make up numbers.

    We need to relax a little about this. League table position is a rough guide, no more. Your life is not blighted if you go to university Y rather than university X, and X is 10 places higher than Y in the league table. 10 places means almost nothing. Even if the difference in placing is much more than 10, it may be that your subject is taught better or more with the emphasis you like at Y rather than X. Also, though sure it is an advantage at the beginning of your career to have gone to a higher prestige university, once you have been in employment, it soon becomes irrelevant, and what you did in your earlier jobs is what any potential employer would be looking at.

    Universities higher in the league table are likely to teach a subject in a way with more advanced content than universities lower down. So there’s an advantage, but it’s not an advantage if it means you struggle to understand it and so fail. So the best university for a particular individual may not be the one highest in the league table. Many students do not seem to understand this, and they think university teaching is like school subjects where there’s a standard nationally set curriculum.

  • Bet they won’t be making these sort of noises in private schools but for the oiks at the comps I guess its ok. After all, we are all tories now. Frankly, if the boys at Eton are not being told about life as a plumber its not good enough for any other kids outside Eton. Stop trying to hold people back.

    University should be valued. Its not just or even primarily about getting a job but growing as a person and learning to think and question – the type of skills people like Cameron and Clegg don’t really like amongst the great unwashed.

  • Jonathan Hunt 15th Aug '13 - 5:20pm

    There should be a better way, to coin a well-used cliché.

    And in many other countries, there is; they tend to be the ones tht have created a huge Skills Gap beween them and us. So the Herr Dokter who runs the factory probably leaves school at 18, and becomes an appretice in industry.

    Having gained practical knowledge, and got into the habit of work, off s/he goes to university where due regard is given to wht s/he has already learnt. going back to work before returning to academia tor a further degree. We used to do things this way. Most professors of egineering aged over 50 started work as an apprentice, before goining to uni.

    But levels of academic sobbery and the grinding of vested interests by academics on policy matters in this party as well as the others are geared to look down on vocational learning. That, coupled witb ONC staistics that show that on average, graduates earn some 85 per cent more than non-graduates over a lifetime career.

    (This additional £1 million makes a nonsense of sob stories about poor students who have to borrow a fraction of this as their ticket on the gravy train.)

    We need able people in industry who have gained from both vocational and academic learning to acquire the skills and knowledge UK plc needs to earn our living in the world.

  • Banning January exams for A levels from 2014 is one of the most unfair and illiberal decisions made by this Government [technically Ofqual but bullied by Gove]. Gove claims it’s all about preventing grade inflation and raising standards, but rationing exam opportunities doesn’t raise standards, it just makes A levels more of a lottery, and that will make university (and apprenticeship) applications more of a lottery too.

    The decision to ban January exams was announced at short notice at the end of 2012, during the second year of the course for students sitting their A levels in 2013 and the first year for students sitting their A levels in 2014, even though the examination boards’ specifications had been promising that students could sit exams in January and June. There was no regard to students’ legitimate expectations. It followed a poorly publicised consultation which had just a handful of responses from parents and students, who overwhelming opposed the proposals but whose views were ignored and not investigated further. Most of the responses were from top private and grammar schools which expect all their students to get high marks first time, and are keen to stop anybody else getting good grades.

    As it turned out there was a fiasco with one of my daughter’s exams in June this year. Edexcel had to use a reserve paper at short notice for its C3 Maths paper after a security breach. The paper was untested and turned out to be much harder than usual, causing an outcry among thousands of students, many of whom (including my daughter) fell apart in the face of questions they couldn’t do at all.

    The results came out today, and sure enough Edexcel had slashed the pass mark for this paper from the original 40/75 to 24/75 in order to get roughly the same numbers passing as usual. But it wasn’t enough for my daughter who got a Grade U in the C3 paper. This dragged down her overall result to a Grade D in Maths overall instead of a predicted Grade B. The examination was a lottery.

    So what does my daughter do now? She has to hang around for a whole year until she can take this exam again, even though she would be ready to take it now, or in January. There must be lots of other students in a similar position, who were ill or had a bad day, and didn’t get the results they were expecting. These things can happen, particularly at comprehensive schools. For my daughter’s A level courses, two of her teachers went on maternity leave and one was sacked. She now faces an enforced gap year: but a gap year with exams at the end of it isn’t the same as a gap year with exams in January!

  • Ed Shepherd 15th Aug '13 - 5:48pm

    Here’s a radical idea: university places get allocated to students at random. It means a student from Millfield with five starred A’s might have to go to an urban polytechnic whilst a student who suffered a bad educational experience at a run-down school plagued by social problems might get the chance to go to Oxford. I guarantee that such a system would result in our politicians pumping money into the less fashionable universities in order to ensure that their little Toby can go to a university that is properly funded and respected. Far-fetched? Well, it’s meant to be the whole basis of our state education system in which (theoretically) there is no selection. I like the idea. We might even find out that these so-called top universities were only like that because they were guaranteed the supposed “cream of the crop” each year. Oh yes, and abolish tuition fees so that all the students can have the free education that Nick Clegg, David Laws, Vince Cable et al enjoyed.

  • A Social Liberal 15th Aug '13 - 10:58pm

    Why shouldn’t everyone have the right to aspire to a university education. Why shouldn’t everyone who can try for the better prospects that education would give them.

    The only guide to access should be the ability of the individual

  • John Carlisle 16th Aug '13 - 8:16am

    @ Social Liberal: because we have been brainwashed into thinking that university is the peak of the intellectual challenge as well as an open door to a job. In the first case I would challenge our graduates to try the Civil Service exams and compare that with the Uni. I know of two civil servants who have risen to the highest levels and who entered the institution with no higher level qualifications.
    Also, I was raised in a mining community where the vocational arguments we had as teenagers were whether a fitter and turner was better than a plumber, or an electrician better than a rock breaker miner. Being a graduate had no special cachet. It was a very egalitarian and happy community, and promotion was on merit.
    Job opportunity: my son spent four years at Oxford, emerging with a Masters degree and has yet to find a job.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Aug '13 - 11:13am

    I think we need to get this debate into perspective. Since 2010, we have had a relentless emphasis on university study over vocational and technical education. This has been fed down into the EBacc performance measures (which is still with us), which hold schools to account for pupil performance in some academic subjects and this is related in another performance measure, which show whether schools then send their children to a list of the ‘right’ universities.

    The obsession with university has been with us ever since I can remember but the push for students to do certain subjects over a balanced education suited to aptitude and interest is secondary.Plus now there is emphasis on a certain university mission group which, contrary to the Daily Telegraph’s propaganda does not contain all of the top-performing universities in this country.

    There is a self-perpetuation of elitism and vested interests in the university sector, coupled with an unashamedly elitist education department and a media which feeds the fears.

    It has always been a problem but the situation is greatly heightened under this DfE regime.

    I do not equate elitism with striving to be elite and getting to the top on merit, by the way.

    Elitism is an attitude which perpetuates the view that only certain groups or institutions are top.

    It is the classic Tory aspiration.

  • @John Carlisle ”Also, I was raised in a mining community where the vocational arguments we had as teenagers were whether a fitter and turner was better than a plumber, or an electrician better than a rock breaker miner. Being a graduate had no special cachet. It was a very egalitarian and happy community, and promotion was on merit”.

    Aye, uni-versity-ty is not for likes of us. We might not have had books and all that learning but we were happy ‘doffs cap to local aristocrat’.
    Very egalitarian? Perhaps, because all members of such communities were oppressed – that’s about as far as equality went in such places. Everyone being as insular, anti-intellectual and ignorant as everyone else does not constitute egalitarianism. Of course, many people from working class communities embraced learning and did not spend their time arguing about plumbers vs electricians, some wanted to get out of all that…. via university shock horror.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 1:08pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    There is a self-perpetuation of elitism and vested interests in the university sector, coupled with an unashamedly elitist education department and a media which feeds the fears.

    I am writing this while sitting handling calls for UCAS clearing. I have already rejected large numbers of enquirers because they lack A-level Maths and other of what you dismiss as “elitist” subjects. I teach aspects of computer programming as part of a BSc in Computer Science, what I teach gets people jobs, it’s direct skills the employers want and say they are short of, former students have told me that showing competency in what I taught them was what got them their job. We ask for A-level Maths because our experience suggests that students with that qualification usually do well in the main practical aspect of our degree, which is programming, while students who have supposedly relevant “vocational” subjects generally do badly. Colleagues in other engineering subjects say much the same. We are teaching material that is directly relevant to employment. How come you write this off as not “vocational”?

    I’m sorry, but this claim that what I am doing is part of “a self-perpetuation of elitism and vested interests in the university sector” makes me really angry. Our children HAVE been let down because they’ve been badly advised by teachers like you who just don’t understand what modern industry requires and push them into qualifications which are of little value. I have seen this over many years of doing university admissions – so many students, particularly from less well off backgrounds, whose GCSEs show they could perfectly well have coped with the A-levels we find best develop and test the most relevant skills for our vocational degree subjects, but did not take those A-levels because they were badly advised by their schools.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Aug '13 - 1:54pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    First of all, calm down.

    Secondly, I was not attacking A level maths as this subject has been a core subject since 1988, along with English and Science. I have no problems at all with the key subjects in a core. You know by now that my beef is within the humanities but I am right about the EBacc – it excludes creative and technical subjects and this has had an effect on schools and in the balance of subjects students take, notwithstanding the status. If the Government axed the EBacc measure, students would still take maths. It’s essential.

    As I have pointed out before, the problem is with the quality of advice being given, not by me actually but by the careers service which interviews year 11s and discusses options.

    If a student did come to me and ask for advice, I would ask them in turn, what they wanted to do. If they express a desire to do Computing, it seems obvious to me that maths is essential! I would not persuade them to take my subject if their interest lies elsewhere. I agree that whoever is in charge of advising students must be better equipped to give the right advice but this does not mean tearing up the curriculum, as Gove has done ,(although computing was a necessary and obvious upgrade from ICT).

    My swipe at elitism in the sector is aimed at Gove’s imposition of league tables related to one university mission group and the barely disguised support and help for it from certain DfE ministers from 2010 – I think this is deeply divisive.
    I am for striving to be the best, to be elite but am opposed to elitism.

    I don’t think my comments were aimed at you, Matthew as I pretty much agree with you on most things.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 2:13pm


    As I stated RIGHT NOW I am dealing with large numbers of young people whose hope have been dashed due to poor advice. Why should I not get a bit worked up about that? And, sorry but for years when I tried to put this message across, I so often met a brick wall, accusing me of saying what I was saying because I was some sort of “elitist”, just the sort of language you are using now.

    You may think that Maths is essential for Computing, but I spent years dealing with schools who didn’t, who advised students who wanted to go into software development to take A-level ICT and actively discouraged them from taking A-level Maths. No-one I know who is in academic computing, or who is in commercial software development, has a good word to say for A-level ICT or for the various other qualifications billed as “vocational” for software-related jobs. The message from ALL universally is that they would MUCH prefer school students to cover basis mathematical and literacy subjects – yet we were faced with the response from the schools that we were only saying that out of “a self-perpetuation of elitism and vested interests”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 2:18pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    this does not mean tearing up the curriculum, as Gove has done

    Much as I dislike Gove, he was the first person who showed some signs of taking into account what academics like myself had been saying for years and years on this issue. New Labour seemed to be just pushing poorly designed on-the-cheap “vocational” qualifications, and refused to listen to any criticism of them, writing it all off as “elitist”.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Aug '13 - 2:52pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    Okay two points. I agree that during the Labour years ICT was in great favour as were other technology subjects. The message schools had from government was that pupils had to become familiar with and competent in using it for the workplace. As the government makes the proposals, schools have to follow.

    I do sympathise with the problems you are facing. I do not understand why someone who takes PE or Drama thinks they can do Computing without maths – that is either poor advice or no advice and suggests to me a lack of a careers advisor in school. Sadly, Gove has stopped the funding for the Careers service so it may be that there is no advice on offer outside of class tutors – and this depends on in-service training, which is the first to be cut when money is tight.

    The advantage of ICT was that it did help a broad range of students to become competent in the technology but for some reason academics like yourself were not listened to by Ministers on the specifics of computing. I have no idea why, as this is not my area. All I do know is that Labour mercilessly pushed maths and literacy in schools as well as technology, because these were areas that needed improvement at the time. Clearly, they did not think too far ahead.

    As for elitism: Under Labour, there was a decisive push towards half the cohort going to university. As many of these were not particularly academic, the upshot was the proliferation of ‘new’ subjects like Law. PE, Dance.

    Personally, I never understood why anyone who was academically adept would choose one of these subjects and had to do some hard persuading of some students to stick with subjects like maths – to no avail in some cases. Of course, the proliferation was encouraged because Blair bottled introducing the Tomlinson proposals in 2003/4, which, I believe would have dealt with many of the problems we see now.

    Cries from New Labour people that traditional subjects are elitist is not my concern. In my subject, we preferred students to take English A level alongside RS, because literacy is so important in essay-based subjects.

    Elitism is when one group is favoured over another and the curriculum is reconfigured in such a way that one part of the cohort is effectively excluded from aspiring to university. The less academically able should be given high quality examinations in their areas of aptitude but with the right advice, they would know that PE A level is not suitable for going on to read Law but is probably okay for Sports Science degrees. This is common sense.

    You may believe that Gove is dealing with this but what he has done has not only attacked the New Labour subjects but other traditional curriculum subjects like Art, Music and my own humanity – he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater in a particularly ruthless way and narrowed the curriculum too far the other way.

    I do not think it is elitist to study maths, neither do I think that traditional subjects like music is soft (even though it is not in the EBacc). There needs to be a balance in the debate. Neither Tories nor Labour can provide this and we have not been nearly effective enough at insisting on balance.

  • David White 16th Aug '13 - 3:06pm

    The question we should be asking is what went wrong when the Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act failed us and our children; has failed generations of parents and children? We should also ask why, arguably, the most incompetent and damaging education secretary in history should be allowed to continue disadvantaging young people, their schools and their teachers – permanently, it seems?

    In principle, the ’44 Act was good; I’m sure it was well-meaning: Butler was a genuine ‘One-Nation Tory’. I wish I could say the same about just one of the present bunch!

    The first error in the 1944 Act was the 11+ exam/test. To arbitrarily separate children is socially and educationally -permanently -is iniquitous. But, even if you accept/support selective secondary education, 11+ is the wrong age to do so: perhaps surprisingly, the public schools have always had selection sussed with their 13+ Common Entrance exams. At that age, rather than 11+, a more realistic assessment of academic potential can be made.

    Another major flaw in 1944 was the wartime coalition’s governments failure to ensure the full application of the Act. It was intended that secondary education should be on a tripartite basis: secondary modern schools, technical schools and grammar schools within every education authority. But the technical schools requirement was not enforced, so most councils (strapped for cash, as usual) didn’t bother.

    In 1948, my parents moved me (and themselves) from Coventry to Newport Pagnell. No technical school was available; just Bury Street Secondary Modern or Wolverton Grammar School.

    In December 1951, we moved to Beckenham. It was a borough that possessed a very splendid-looking technical school – my father, an MIMechE who visited it, was impressed with the quality of its equipment. It was a place where the skilled craftsmen of the future were received their initial training before going on to apprenticeships.

    Taking the dreaded 11+ at 10, I felt no fear and was granted a scholarship to a famous public school in SE21. There, I was not a star student: the Engineering VIth and bog standard A Levels in Physics, Pure Maths and Applied Maths. I felt, I still feel, that the selective education which sent me to that school was barmy! I still think that our secondary schooling is ludicrously bad – and often mad!

    No, please don’t get me wrong, there are many, many fine schools – in spite of the worst efforts of successive governments to handicap them.

    Our current ConDem administration occasionally fuffs and flaps about over technical education and apprenticeships for the skilled artisans of the future, but very little real progress is made.

    What can be done to improve things for our children and grandchildren?

    Dare I suggest that the first thing to do is remove the charitable status of all schools which, presently, enjoy that status. Yes, I do dare: charity status is disgraceful. I would allow any school which agreed to offer 25% of it’s admissions fee-free.

    Next, I urge the establishment of genuine technical schools which prepare youngsters for the industries of both the present and the future. This will demand genuine apprenticeships and/or hands-on university technical courses.

    Right, I’ve said my say. Over to you dear chums. Please don’t be too cruel.

    PS: To quote an old song: ‘Oh, there’s much more I could say, but the words keep slipping away…’

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 4:39pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    Personally, I never understood why anyone who was academically adept would choose one of these subjects and had to do some hard persuading of some students to stick with subjects like maths – to no avail in some cases.

    The problem is that 16 year olds have very limited life experience. Those with parents who have the necessary contacts will be influenced by them, but those from a less privileged background tend to believe that academic subjects are not relevant to the world of work but subjects with a vocational-sounding title are. Mathematics is the most widely required subject, needed for almost any science and engineering as well as the better business and economics courses, yet there is still this common belief, often reflected in media discussion of the subject, that it is “useless”, something only needed beyond GCSE for a few specialist areas. They think that when teachers tell them otherwise, that’s just teachers being teachers.

    The result of too few students taking A-level Maths is that degree courses which really need it are forced to take students without it, and this sends out the message “A-level Maths isn’t needed for it”. But the courses that are forced to take that route would much prefer to take students with A-level Maths if there were enough applicants who have it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 5:26pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    I have not come across anyone saying maths is useless.

    Here‘s an example.

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