From the desk of the Head Master 10 January 2020
It’s a funny time of year, with our U6th and Year 11s coming in just for mock exams this week, and other year groups getting straight back into work, rapidly forgetting the holidays.
I do feel for the U6th at this time, not so much because they have their exams, but because they are now in the wait-and-see stage of their university applications. There are various aspects of the application process that don’t work well and things have got worse in recent years.
No longer are pupils able to give details of AS results – a nationwide benchmark of where they stood at the end of L6th. For all their faults, at the very least they provided hard data that was directly relevant to the A-level courses being pursued. Instead we just have ‘predicted A-level grades’; soft data based on half of the course, with no moderation across schools. All schools have to look through rose-tinted glasses at their pupils in making such predictions (we are on their side, after all) so there are big questions for universities on the weight these can be given. We also have the dreaded personal statement, where 17 year olds have to convey their passion for their chosen subject, stress their strengths and abilities (with examples, please) and make themselves stand out from the crowd. That can be really difficult to articulate and it often takes hours and multiple drafts to get it right.
Boys who have applied to university are falling into two camps around now. Many have got all of their offers through and will be considering which of a selection of great options they wish to take. Conditional offers nowadays are based on little more than GCSE results (the only hard data the universities have), the personal statement and the A-level predictions. But some of those boys will have been given unconditional offers. These are a cynical marketing tool and I have asked the boys to see through that in making their choices: while at first glance they are quite nice, the boys must not be deceived by flattery, nor must they think an unconditional offer renders their A-level grades irrelevant – plenty of employers will want to see those grades in a world where 2:1s abound.
The other group of boys – applying for the most competitive courses (and medicine is probably the toughest) may have one or two offers, or maybe none yet, three months after applying. I have known a number of pupils find this period really difficult, unable to see what they have done wrong and wondering whether the offer will come tomorrow. All that they can really do is continue with the task at hand, working towards their A-levels and getting the best grades that they can.
Cambridge and Oxford have their interview season in December: it has always been so, and that drives much of the current application system. We also have the curious restriction on them only allowing applications to one or the other, but not both – surely a policy that is ripe for a legal challenge in the near future. They seem oblivious to the working patterns of schools, placing the aptitude tests in the middle of the half term break and then, in the case of Oxford, demanding applicants visit for an extended period of 2-3 nights during our term time, with the instruction to check the noticeboards every half hour to see if they have been called for an interview. It is an outdated system and while I and others have tried lobbying for change, there is no appetite to even tweak it. The offers from Cambridge and Oxford will come through next week and for each boy involved it will be a significant moment. For some it will be a cause for celebration but for others it will be the first time they feel they have failed: we have to buoy them up and get them thinking positively about Plan B (which in most cases will be a really good offer from another top university).
I would love to see all universities take a serious look at what they are doing in the ways they recruit and consider how it impacts on their students. Realistically that has to come from the top universities. A system which allows the U6th to get their A-level results before decisions are made would be a starting point. A-levels begin in early May and end in mid-June but take two months to process. If pupils applied to universities immediately after taking their exams and then offers were made on the basis of actual results, available in July, it would be so much fairer, far less disruptive and just kinder on the young people involved. I hope that there is a willingness from government and the universities to make such a change.
Luckily, boys at Warwick School are well placed to navigate this difficult journey. As educators we work hard to teach them resilience, we build their confidence and we support their academic development. Through the school’s learning values they are given the courage to take intellectual risks, attempting solutions to difficult or unfamiliar problems, and if failing, having the perseverance to keep trying. They have the humility to listen and respect the views of teachers and their peers, and are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. They value independence of thought and intellectual creativity, and develop curiosity by asking questions and challenging ideas. These core values are embedded from the beginning of their academic journey at Warwick School, and will stay with them long after they leave us.