How is a 15-year-old supposed to know what to do with their life and what to study? Should they choose science or the arts? Will a degree be worth the debt? And how high (or low) should they aim? As your teenager approaches the last few years of school you’ll feel a rollercoaster of emotions — fear of (them) missing out, worry that they’ll fail, bewilderment as to which school or course will best prepare them for the world.
Here are a few things to watch out for. If, for example, your child’s school has a small sixth form there may be a limited choice of subjects — and pressure to choose certain ones to keep class sizes at an economic level. There is some merit in picking schools with a wider range of choices, not least because flourishing sixth forms tend to attract better teachers.
Even in a larger sixth form, teachers may well wish to steer pupils towards the Russell Group ‘facilitating subjects’ — essentially the core academic ones (maths, English, the sciences, history etc). Don’t let your child be railroaded into choosing three ‘facilitators’ when two is usually more than enough. If they want to do something a little off-piste for their third A-level, such as music technology, drama or art, I’d be inclined to encourage it. It is sometimes these subjects that can inspire a child during the often mind-numbing treadmill of preparing for exams. There are, of course, some exceptions (if medicine or Oxbridge is the target, for example) but make sure that these really are your child’s dream choices, not yours.
Watch out, too, for schools that judge themselves by how many Russell Group places they can chalk up, and put this objective before your child’s welfare and future. Nor should you let your child sleepwalk into a university path beaten by previous generations (perhaps by you as parents). A pupil railroaded down any one route may end up living a predictable off-the-peg life, with little opportunity to nourish or discover their true talents and interests. You don’t need to study law to be a lawyer, nor business to succeed in business.
A sixth form that boasts about the number of pupils who get five university offers may be playing too safe and aiming too low
There might be more interesting ways of training a young brain and igniting the curiosity that is the hallmark of successful higher education. Check out new options such as interdisciplinary courses, degree apprenticeships, and accelerated (two-year) or part-time courses.
A-level result predictions are another minefield. These form part of the university application process through Ucas. You might have read lately that they are seldom accurate, but don’t worry. Over-enthusiastic predictions are already priced in by the universities and, in aggregate at least, they do not
distort the process.
A word of advice however — haranguing your child’s teachers to flatter his or her predicted grades is unlikely to help anyone. The admissions staff in universities will quickly spot an enhanced prediction.
There are plenty of ways of correcting mistakes, post-results, through Ucas Clearing — which has lost its former stigma as the mopping-up process for exam failures and unpopular universities. Since the fees system allowed popular universities to expand you can find exceptional courses in the clearing system. It’s becoming a good opportunity for those teenagers who have simply made up their minds to do something different without having to wait another year.
In many ways, university places are far more of a buyer’s market than they were a few decades ago. For several years now the population of 18-year-olds has been falling at a time when universities are expanding, so competition to attract students has increased. Many Russell Group universities will be accepting grades in the B and C zone for at least some courses. Any student with decent (or middling) A-level grades will be an attractive recruit for many universities.
This shows up in the huge number of students who nowadays get offers for all five universities that they apply to through Ucas. But if your school boasts about the number of its sixth formers getting five university offers, then that’s a cause for alarm. It probably means they are playing too safe and aiming too low for their students.
Pupils tend to do better in their A-levels if they are motivated by an offer that stretches them. So what should you do if your son or daughter’s dream university makes them an unconditional offer? This may be in the form of a guaranteed place, regardless of exam grades achieved, as long as that course is chosen as the applicant’s ‘firm’ or first choice. Such offers have been much criticised in the press as ‘pressure selling’, with lesser universities trying to scoop up the best students by having them accept an unconditional offer, rather than a conditional one from a rival. So if your child does get such an offer, by all means encourage them to accept, if it really is their preferred choice. But you will need to explain to them that A-level grades will stay with them for longer than just the university entrance process. If an unconditional offer is tempting your teenager away from their real preference, then put your foot down.
Finally, if your child doesn’t want to go to university, or wants to decide later, then let them. Resist the temptation to follow the crowd. Lots of people go to university in their 20s or later and love it, not least because they are then more confident and purposeful; sure about what they want to study and why.
Perhaps I should declare an interest. I might have been chief executive of Ucas but I was never a Ucas client because I left school at 16 and didn’t go to university until I was 41. Things worked out well for me. So my professional and personal advice is to remember that this is about a choice. Including the choice to go to university later in life, or not at all.
Mary Curnock Cook is an independent educationalist who was chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service from 2010 to 2017.