The tilted playing field

In the race for university places some educational routes are far better than others.
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The Independent Online
There has been a shift towards mass participation in post-compulsory education and training. Two-thirds of young people now stay in learning after the age of 16. Many are encouraged to enrol in further education by the vocational nature of new qualification routes, their unit structure and their emphasis on coursework-based assessment. They are joined by thousands of mature learners following access and other foundation courses.

This is a new world of learning, a world in which there are multiple pathways, not just A-levels, to a university place. Many do make it to university via these routes, but they move mainly to particular parts of the system - to the new universities rather than the old, and to HND rather than degree courses.

More important, research into the progress of students with BTEC, GNVQ and access qualifications, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust and carried out at the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds, suggests that in the competition for university places, many are disadvantaged by the route they choose.

Predicting the chances of getting into higher education without A-levels is extremely risky. Take the cases of two mature students, Nicola and Pete (not their real names), both on the same access course in their further education college. Both are intelligent, motivated, and determined to get to university at the end of their course.

Nicola had her sights set on a degree in occupational therapy. With relevant occupational and voluntary experience, she knew what was involved - the hurdles, the qualifications, the best universities - and took an A-level in biology alongside her access certificate.

Pete, on the other hand, a former lorry driver, was less focused. His health had collapsed, and he was only just recovering with the help of therapy. He had thought about pursuing a career in social work, but was unsure about it, and his ideas and goals are still changing as the course progresses.

Of the two, Pete looked the less likely to achieve a place. In fact, while Pete was bolstered by several invitations to interview followed by conditional offers, to Nicola's amazement - and that of her tutors - she was rejected, without interview, by the universities of her choice. Deflated, Nicola talked of giving up her course, or starting another.

In the end, both were to progress to higher education, but neither of them in predictable ways. Nicola finally secured herself a place on an entirely different course at a nearby new university, by ringing them direct. Pete switched courses at the last minute and decided that he simply could not afford to become a full-time student, preferring part-time attendance instead.

Such experiences are far from unusual. Why should it be so? Many students on these routes are first-generation applicants to higher education. Many are lacking in self-confidence, due to a history of under-achievement in compulsory schooling. A high proportion have previously enrolled on one or more courses in FE, sometimes without success or satisfaction.

Unlike their A-level counterparts, these students can spend vast amounts of time and energy trying courses and routes in order to find a "fit" between their abilities, aspirations and sense of self. Many mature students return to study after experiencing confidence-sapping life events such as redundancy, divorce and bereavement. For some, returning to learning is the last-chance saloon.

Despite the attractions of the alternative routes, once on theme these students, young and old alike, find the system of progression depressingly geared to A-levels and GCSEs. They have faith in the qualifications they are taking, the rigour of their instruction and the value to them personally. But their confidence is sapped by the doubts expressed by university admissions procedures, which maintain many of the old frontiers between further and higher education.

In desperation, many attain extra qualifications, despite the extra workload and the need to have part-time jobs as well, in order to convince the sceptics of their worth. Even worse, for those on one-year courses, the process of choosing future options comes so soon that anxieties and uncertainties predominate.

Even tutors are not immune from blame, writing references to back university applications when they do not even know the students properly, before they have had a chance to provide sensible advice about future options.

Too often, this is the world of "not A-level": a world without clear signposts and route maps; a world of students unclear about how their alternative qualifications will equip them for progression to higher education; a world of unpredictable and inconsistent progress; of second, third or even no choices; a world in which motivation and sheer determination to succeed against all manner of odds are no guarantee of success; and, in worst cases, a world of rejection and exclusion, a turning away from the door; a world of rationed higher education, in spite of all the talk about parity of esteem and lifelong learning.

And yet these alternative routes are vitally important. They are vital to the mission of creating a genuine learning society. They are vital to the individuals concerned, and to their families and their futures.

While Sir Ron Dearing's report comes off the press, we can only hope that it addresses these issues. It must reassert the need for a diversity of routes into higher education and recognise the need to invest in qualifications counselling. It must avoid creating "ghettos" for non-A-level students and encourage universities to develop clear, consistent institutional strategies on recruiting alternatively qualified students.

Without clear moves in these directions, the new framework of education and training will perish, and with it the high hopes of lifelong learning and a new "knowledge" societyn

`Standard Systems, Non-Standard Systems: Experiences of Progression from Further to Higher Education', by David Smith, Jean Bocock and Peter Scott, The Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds.

After taking her GNVQ in Health and Social Care at Loughborough College, Shona Stroud (left) is now studying for a BSc Hons in Occupational Therapy at the University of Northumbria. "The GNVQ course opened my eyes to a wide range of educational opportunities," Shona says. "It gave me practical and academic skills which have been very valuable in my degree studies."

Elizabeth Dodson (right) is studying for a BSc Hons in Human Psychology at Loughborough University after taking her GNVQ qualification at Loughborough College. "The best thing about GNVQ was the opportunity to be involved and active in my learning, which suited me. At the same time we achieved a high academic standard."

Julie Brown (centre) has gone on from a GNVQ at Loughborough College to a BEd at Derby University. "I can't get over how organised, self-disciplined and effective I became at managing my time while I was doing my GNVQ. It should all stand me in good stead as a teacher."

Photograph: Doug Mark/Page One