File - Gary Snapper

Sixth Form to University
Some recent research into transition
Gary Snapper
Cheney School, Oxford
National Association for the Teaching of English
[email protected]
Reform: “A New Level”
The rise of the ersatz A-level has stymied independent study and
original thought. After successfully becoming a mass market
qualification in the 1980s and 1990s, A-levels underwent radical
surgery in 2000 that damaged their intellectual integrity.
Modularisation and mechanised marking were introduced despite
the objections of universities. These changes have not widened
participation – instead they have created a generation of “high
maintenance students” who struggle to think for themselves.
Intellectual integrity was traded off against a central drive for wider
participation. This has failed. Increases in participation have flagged
since the major changes to A-level in 2000, following acceleration in
the 1980s and 1990s. If anything the gap between schools in the
state and private sectors is widening as the best schools
increasingly turn to respected, rigorous qualifications such as the
International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Pre-U. Meanwhile the
majority of state schools are stuck with a hollower A-level.
Action must be taken to re-link A-levels with their strong academic
heritage. Universities should take responsibility for the quality
assurance of A-levels. New ersatz qualifications such as “Use of
Maths” and “Critical Thinking” A-levels should be halted.
Starting points
Comparisons between demands / qualities of A
Level and IB
A Level : pre-2000 and 2008 changes
• Narrowness of programme – 3 subjects standard,
no framework, no broadening, no coherence
• Narrowness within subjects
• Breadth / coherence of programme leading to depth
• Breadth within subjects (e.g. internationalism, variety of
assessment modes)
English Literature
A Level –
• Model of subject virtually unchanged since 1960s despite
huge changes in HE English
• Atomistic approach to syllabus: little coherence or emphasis
on ‘the big picture’
I.B. –
• Syllabus offers variety of models and methods
• Strong emphasis on disciplinary frameworks – e.g. genres,
periods, cultures, comparative approaches
Research into trajectory of
I.B. students from Impington
Marked for Life: progression from the IB
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme:
An Introduction for Teachers and Managers,
ed. Tim Pound, Routledge 2006
• Small scale study of nine ex-students who took the I.B from
1993 – 1999
• How might the IBDP have helped prepare them for university,
employment, citizenship?
I would not hesitate to recommend the IB,
despite the heavy workload… The time I spent
doing the course helped shape me into who I
am as an adult. University was almost a let
down by comparison. (Student B)
I have never regretted taking the IB – on the
contrary, I have always felt privileged to have
had the opportunity to take it… When I first
went to university I found it disappointing
after my time [in the sixth form]. Classes were
not as stimulating and certainly not as
focussed, other students were not as
comfortable in taking part in discussions, and
many showed little interest in any subject
other than their own as it was narrowly
defined by the syllabus. (Student D)
I find it almost impossible to be objective
about the IB as it was a wholly positive
experience for me, and I still firmly believe that
in terms of preparation for life after the sixth
form, whether in academia or otherwise, the
IB has far more to offer than A Level. The
roundedness of the IB program gives, in my
opinion, a far better grounding than separate
A level courses, and I certainly felt when I got
to university that I was significantly
advantaged by my sixth form experience.
(Student I )
2 students who started A Level at a sixth form college
but transferred to the IB at IVC:
• I disliked the learning system at [the sixth form
college], which involved being fed a lot of information
in preparation for exams, as it wasn’t interactive or in
any way to do with the process of learning. (Student E)
• I didn’t enjoy the way the subjects were taught so
independently, that there was no real attempt at
integration of the courses, and that there didn’t seem
to be any desire to provide an holistic learning
experience over the two-year period. (Student I)
Students’ university experiences:
• Doing the IB was an extremely valuable exercise in time
management; studying many different subjects to a high
level taught me to prioritise and to use the little time I had
to do the work effectively. I learnt to research topics quickly
and efficiently – a very helpful technique to have learnt
before getting to university. (Student B)
• I have always believed that the IB was excellent preparation
for university. I had little difficulty organising my university
study since I actually found it to require less organisational
aptitude than the IB. (Student H)
• At university, I never missed a deadline, and, whilst
others were struggling with the workload, I did not
really notice it. The extended essay played a great part
in this as I was already used to writing long essays. I
don’t think I would have been as well prepared in this
respect if I had opted for A levels. (Student C)
• It is surprising how often subjects we touched on in
TOK have re-emerged in seemingly unrelated subjects
later on in my education. (Student G)
• The way that the IB opens your mind to thinking about
every aspect of a subject was not something that those
who had done A levels in my class were used to
applying to music. (Student B)
Some elements of IB identified as beneficial
to university transition
• Encourages independent / critical thought
• Encourages cross-disciplinary thought (TOK) and
political / philosophical angles (TOK, World Lit,
• Emphasises variety of modes of communication and
• Provides opportunity for extended essay / research
• Emphasises international aspects / applications
• Encourages good learning habits / organisation
Research into transition from A Level
to University (English)
• PhD research, Institute of Education, University of London
• Case study of one class of 1st year students at a top-end ‘new’
university (average grade profile – B at A Level) with a highperforming English dept
• Study followed students and lecturers for one year
• Data from weekly observations of core lectures and seminars,
+ interviews with students and lecturers.
• Emphasis on experience both in VI form and in HE
• Very little existing research of this kind (in HE or VI form)
Research focus
How do students deal with the conceptual
demand of the HE course? - e.g.
• understanding of disciplinary frameworks and boundaries
• extent and nature of reading and thinking
How do lecturers accommodate for students’
learning needs in these respects?
How well does A Level prepare for this?
Background / Literature Review
1. Consistent criticisms of A Level (Literature) from both
secondary and higher sectors for:
narrowness and conservatism
old-fashioned modes and methods
lack of theoretical framework
lack of engagement with cultural analysis and applications
2. Consistent lack of communication / co-operation
between university and secondary sectors
3. Growing concern in HE with:
• how to provide ‘epistemological access’ in context of cultural
diversity, widening participation, diversity of values ‘Understanding University Learning’
4. Post-16 policy developments:
• RAE in universities
• development of HE Learning Academy / Subject Centres with remit
for curriculum/pedagogy
• Curriculum 2000 (failed)
• Tomlinson Report (rejected)
• growth in interest in IB (Welsh Bacc, English Bacc, AQA Bacc, etc.)
• A Level 2008 developments + Diploma
Some broader issues
• To what extent can / should Sixth Form align with
/ prepare for university study?
• IB seems to offer certain elements that prepare
well for university, and seems to embody some of
the breadth and freedom of university study?
Could A Level do this?
• To what extent does university teaching and
learning provide a model for sixth form?
• Transition matters? Desirability of strength of
academic cycle (teacher - student - teacher)
Some research issues
• Generalisation from one case study must be
made with care
• Ideally, we need more research
• The case study takes one random, typical,
average group and identifies issues likely to be
of common concern
Findings: Headlines 1 – A Level
• A Level Literature prepared students poorly
for demands of the HE English course:
• No introduction to the likely content of a university course
• No introduction to HE research skills / teaching and learning
conditions (lectures, libraries, etc.)
• Virtually no secondary/critical reading
• Little chance to make cross – disciplinary connections
• No General Studies / TOK type input
• No extended writing or research
Findings: Headlines 2 - HE
• HE modules struggled to start from where students are
or to engage with students’ motivations or rationales
for study
• Lecturers are often puzzled by students’ disciplinary
uncertainty or varied motivations, appearing to expect
fully-formed intellectual commitment
• Meta-cognitive support for students - access to
theoretical discourses and self-positioning - was weak +
restricted teaching time
• Many concepts and texts covered at HE pitched
inappropriately but would be accessible given
appropriate presentation and engagement
Learning issues
• Lecturers concerned by students’ ‘instrumental’
and assessment-driven approaches to learning - :
often attributed to ‘spoon-feeding’ and
assessment overload at A Level
• But at HE, most students silent in seminars;
many become alienated as course progresses and
they fail to grasp content / reading load. This in
turn leads to instrumental approaches to learning
Teaching issues
• A Level Lit provides happy environment for most
students (though some express boredom with
syllabus); pedagogy starts from where students
are but does not always foster independent study
skills or access to broader issues and frameworks
• HE pedagogy may attempt student-centred
strategies but can suffer from lack of pedagogical
expertise and lack of clarity about what students
already know and where they are in terms of
learning and motivation
Some difficulties for students
• Reading widely and quickly, especially in pre-twentieth century
• Negotiating the secondary literature of literary scholarship
• Understanding / assimilating purposes, methods, parameters and
frameworks of literary study (note-taking, research skills, etc)
• Engaging with broad socio-cultural-linguistic aspects of literature,
especially those beyond the analysis of the fictional world of the single
• Poetry – technical and aesthetic aspects; understanding the genre, its
forms and conditions
• Seeing literary texts as part of a real world beyond the classroom of
the production, consumption, reception and interpretation of texts in a
social context rather than as objects for analysis in a classroom
• Recognising and addressing cultural/political references, allusions
• Skills of close reading
The Future?
• Reform’s recommendation: universities to take charge of A
Key issues:
• More breadth needed at A Level, and direct preparation for HE, but
there is much to be learnt by HE from VI Form
• Breadth can provide access to depth / independence
• More appropriate pedagogy needed at HE, but there is much to be
learnt by sixth forms from HE
• HE needs to understand students’ learning and motivations better
• Greater communication between schools and universities,
accommodation of each other’s needs
• Power of sixth form pedagogy + HE subject expertise
While so often the schools and the universities seem quite
separate, if teachers and researchers in the universities
begin to engage in more active dialogue with the
developers of reading and writing programmes and the
teachers who have to teach students – young and older –
‘how’ to read and write, it might be possible to begin to
change the dominant significations of reading in the
schools, so that more students could begin to learn to read
the world simultaneously with learning to read the word.
Kathleen Mcormick, The Culture of Reading and the Teaching
of English