Education: You've done too much, much too young...

Learning is a lifelong process, and taking the fast track isn't always a good thing, says Hilary Fender. Starting a degree in the sixth form ignores the value of wider interests
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The Independent Online
In the past few years, we have been urged to reconsider the traditional sixth-form curriculum based on A-levels. Breadth has rightly become the clarion call, with many an envious look towards the International Baccalaureate and its collection of major and minor subject areas. We are encouraged to develop key skills in our students and widen our horizons to give greater scope to the intellectual curiosities of the intelligent young.

Speaking as the headmistress of a large girls' school with a 160-strong sixth form, that's the good news. The bad news is that now a real threat to the integrity of the Sixth Form may be emerging as a result of an initiative by leading independent schools. The idea of allowing pupils to cover their first year of university in the sixth form worries me enormously.

We reduce these two vital final years of school to an academic forcing house at our peril. The sixth form should be a halfway stage between school and university, giving students the opportunity to learn responsibility for themselves and their studies, develop self- confidence and common sense and explore all sorts of new ideas and issues. It's a chance to have increasing (discretely monitored) independence and even, sometimes, to be young and silly and make the odd mistake in a safe environment. These are not expendable luxuries, but essential ingredients in the development of an interesting adult.

Sixth formers are already under plenty of pressure. Clever pupils will probably be taking three or four A-levels, with each subject requiring at least five hours' independent study outside formal lessons. Most pupils revel in the independent thinking and intellectual maturity demanded and I've yet to find anyone seriously bored or understretched by A-level courses in a lively sixth-form community. At the moment, there is still time for other things - another language, community service, a car maintenance course, sport, music, art, drama, debating - all valuable life-enhancing skills.

As pressure for places on many university courses increases, it would be difficult and indeed perhaps foolhardy for a pupil to resist an early offer in the Lower Sixth. Anyway, what a flattering and glorious progress from GCSEs so recently left behind! But these are, for the first time, real life decisions, about university courses and career opportunities and pupils shouldn't be enticed into having to make them so soon. Most are simply too young and need the opportunity to mature as well as to weigh up the options, talk to people, research their ideas and find out where their real interests lie. If you make a mistake, you could, of course, drop out of your degree course at the end of the sixth form, but who would - and what a dispiriting experience.

I am also concerned that sixth-form degree courses will narrow and distort a student's A-level choices. Happily, now, universities accept a good mix of subjects, appreciating the combination of humanities and sciences as a genuinely mind-broadening programme. Could it survive long in the world of early specialisation?

Universities say they cannot accommodate different ability ranges amongst their first-year students but I find this hard to accept. Secondary schools know the problem well. Around a quarter of our sixth form joins us post- GCSE from a wide range of schools and, indeed, countries and cultures, and yet we somehow sort them out sufficiently to allow them to pass their A-levels within two years. Surely universities, who often have much more rigorous entry requirements than schools, can do the same.

If the scheme takes off, there will be huge pressure for everyone to join in. All educational institutions, whether school, college or university, operate in a highly competitive world where league table rankings are crucial. Presumably, this is one of the main reasons why universities are so keen on the scheme, as it gives them the opportunity to secure the very brightest for themselves - and clever students lead to good results. From a school's point of view, how long before "percentage of pupils studying first-year degree courses" becomes a key indicator of academic quality? Positioned as we are in one of the world's greatest university cities, we at Headington could hardly remain aloof for long.

Degrees in the sixth form are too much, too soon. An education is a lifetime process and the fast track doesn't automatically equate to success. Good results and paper qualifications are vital but they are only entry tickets - and without self assurance and self worth, common sense and wide interests, they may be nothing much at all.

The writer is headmistress of Headington School, Oxford.

Why start early?

As Education+ reported last month, half a dozen independent schools have been negotiating with big civic universities about formal links that could involve science pupils starting university courses in the sixth form.

Behind the idea lies concern that clever and well-prepared students are kicking their heels during the first year of a science degree. That's because so many state-school students lack the preparation of their colleagues and have to be given remedial teaching. The result is that science degrees are increasingly becoming four-year degrees.

Independent school headteachers, led by the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and Manchester Grammar, wonder whether some of their science pupils might skip the first year of university by doing some university work in the sixth form alongside A-levels. Recently they met six civic universities to talk about the idea.

They resolved as a first step to work on developing courses for sixth- formers that would receive university accreditation towards their final degree. They want to see local networks of schools - private and state - working with a local university to ensure pupils move at the right pace for them.

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