Mr Willetts, soft A levels and the "pool"
I spent a few hours before leaving for Egypt (burglars, forget it, there are still some family living in the house), in the Cambridge Admissions Pool. It is an unfortunate nickname, maybe. But a very good thing. All the details of candidates to individual colleges, who did not make it at their first choice college but were thought worthy of a place at Cambridge, are available in this "pool" (which is, in fact, the Newnham dining hall, stuffed full of files and reports and references). Representatives of all colleges with places still to fill are there, looking for good students. In most subjects (mine included) there are also meetings of all the Directors of Studies and Admissions Tutors in the different colleges to make sure that as many of these students are accepted as possible.
I know how ghastly it is to get one of those letters saying that you application was very good, but that there was no place at your college of choice. But, let me assure you, that there have been hundreds (literally) of academics in the Pool these last few days looking to find good students for the remaining places, scrutinising the applications, reading the references -- and all those statistics about the average exam results for the school in question, the number who go to university etc . The truth is that we want to take as many people as we can -- we dont want to reject the good. Dont believe what the papers tell you about how cavalierly or unfairly we take the admissions process.
His idea is that we (that is principally Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities) should be publishing the A levels that we don't take seriously. Indeed he is going to make us, it's said. It is unfair that students should be tempted to study A level subjects (like Citizenship or Sports Studies) that might detract from their application to "good" universities .. who are much keener on History and Further Maths.They need to know before they make their choices.
Well OK. But actually this is another of those bright ideas which we thought the coalition might have transcended.
For a start Cambridge does already give teachers and potential students advice, on its website, about their choice of A Level subject. We do it positively, not negatively -- that is we suggest what a sensible range of subjects might be, rather than blacklisting some. There are several reasons for this. For a start, just imagine the furore there would be if we said, in effect, "Dance" was not an A level we recognised. But more to the point, at the very top of the ability range, it is very hard to lay down fixed rules. I would certainly not want to say that I would never want to take someone with A levels in Dance, Media Studies, German and Classical Civilisation. The point about our individual admissions system is that we look at individual qualifications on a case by case basis. There are guidelines, but not (many) rules.
But, even more important, kids normally make their A level choices long before they have any clue whether they are going to aim at Oxbridge (or another "good" university) -- in fact before they have even got their GCSE results. Apart from a handful of swots, only a very few 15-16 year olds are, on their own, likely to decide on their sixth-form choices by reference to some list of less favourable A levels.
The people who can give them the best advice are their teachers who know them.
Ironically, the now standard transition between 11-16 school and sixth-form college makes the force of this advice more difficult to deliver. My experience with my own kids of touring the local sixth form colleges is that it is a subject auction. They go to an open evening to find Media Studies competing with Russian (well, we'd be so lucky) or Biology for student enrolment. And there is only limited advice on sensible combinations, and still less advice at this stage which might take informed account of the potential career trajectory of these students.
Nonetheless it is teachers who are the best qualified to deliver advice, and on whom the responsibility for this must lie. And from where do the teachers get the information? Well, actually, very many teachers are very good at this already. But in addition the University and most Cambridge colleges offer all kinds of personalised advice on this subject to both pupils and teachers. Mine certainly does. You just need to email or call,
I know we are supposed to be off-putting etc etc. But if we offer help, you might at least give us the benefit of the doubt and trust that this advice is sincerely and freely given. We really dont need to publish a Willetts list of "banned" A levels.