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Hard truth behind the 'soft' options

What A-level combinations do pupils need to get into top universities?

Any parent with a child attending a comprehensive could be forgiven for thinking they have no hope of winning a place at a good university, especially given recent headlines.

First came the news that so-called soft A-levels, such as travel and tourism and media studies, are being publicly blacklisted by many of the leading universities.

The Russell Group, including 20 of the top universities, said too many state school applicants take unsuitable subject combinations to stand a chance of gaining a place. The group is advising candidates about useful combinations. The bid to widen participation continues, but the system is being polarised.

Admissions tutors' concerns were compounded by research from the Sutton Trust, suggesting as many as half of all teachers rarely or never encourage their best pupils to apply to Oxbridge.

Alex Brassey, a former City trader turned sixth form teacher who studied at Manchester University and King's College, London, said he was appalled at the "defeatist" attitude of his school towards pupils aiming for the dreaming spires.

"I saw a very bright girl crying," said Mr Brassey, who teaches in a north London comprehensive. "She had been rejected by every university she applied to because she had the wrong combination of subjects, but she had the ability.

"Children are just taking crazy combinations - such as art, media studies and biology - and expecting to become doctors. They are getting poor advice, too late."

These stories present a dark picture in an age in which widening participation and equal opportunities are buzz-phrases.

But heads hit back at the negativity this week, stressing that most teachers wanted nothing more than to get the best out of their pupils.

Pattrick Frean, head of Coombe Dean School in Elburton, near Plymouth, said schools take great care to ensure all pupils had personalised advice from an early stage, depending on their abilities, interests and ambitions. While media studies and psychology might be appropriate for one pupil, physics and further maths might suit another.

He said: "The idea that a school persuades pupils to take a supposedly soft option for the sake of their league tables is rubbish. It's in the school's interest to get positive outcomes and have pupils staying on the courses, and that only happens if you put them on the right ones.

"There is a sense of mission that motivates teachers - we take a disproportionate pleasure in getting the best out of people."

The Sutton Trust research indicated that many talented pupils miss out on advice and opportunities. But Mr Frean disputes this idea. "There aren't many potential nuclear physicists out there who've chosen hairdressing because they were badly advised," he said.

He believes there is a question of what we value as a nation. One-third of his sixth form are on vocational courses. "I've never had a journalist ring me up and ask me about our 100 per cent NVQ success rate," he said.

"Schools get no merit for that success. We had a very wayward Year 11 girl who stayed three years in the sixth form doing various NVQs and now plans to open her own salon. I ask, `What's wrong with that?'"

David Kennedy, head at John Warner School, a comprehensive in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, said it was senseless to put all pupils on A-level courses in maths, physics and chemistry only to watch 80 per cent fail.

But the school still has a big focus on getting more able pupils into the more established universities. "People say you can't focus on the top and the middle at the same time, but you can," he said.

It is not a deprived area, but many pupils do not have the advantage of parents who went to university. The school tries to catch those with potential in Year 8 via its gifted and talented programme.

In Year 10, a "demystifying" process begins. Pupils go on a visit to Cambridge University, organised through the institution's access programme.

"Although we have Oxbridge teachers leading the process, we would still only expect a handful with the ability, aptitude and - ? above all - interest to apply to those two universities," Mr Kennedy said.

He added that nobody was successful this year, but usually one or two make the grade. However, many more are now successfully applying to redbrick institutions.

Jonathan Huddleston, head of sixth form at John Warner, said having Oxbridge teachers leading efforts to help pupils gain access to universities was not the important factor.

"There just needs to be someone with the drive to do it and you can get that in any school," he said.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, is analysing the academic backgrounds of teachers in different types of school.

He believes teachers educated at top-flight institutions are more likely to aspire to the same for their pupils. He said schemes such as Teach First could hold the key to getting academic high-flyers away from the grammars and private schools and into the inner cities.

"The pattern is changing, but there's still not a uniform distribution of those teachers with degrees from older universities," said Professor Smithers. "In inner London, there are still rather few, barring a handful that have a vocation.

"Teaching in a tough school can be very rewarding if you're skilled at reading non-verbal language and enjoy cajoling, but not if you want to impart your love of poetry."

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that whatever efforts schools made, the ultimate responsibility lies with universities themselves.

"There is a shortcoming on the part of universities to recognise that the world is changing and that school subjects aren't the same as when they were at school," he said. "They are using selection criteria that schools don't know about. I have no problem with universities deciding the criteria, but we can't play a game according to rules we don't know. There are hundreds of admissions tutors, and criteria vary hugely between different departments and each university.

"The information about these criteria has got to be in the possession of the person at age 16, and that is a very young age. There is a bizarre notion of subjects - for example, law - not being accepted at the London School of Economics. It is completely arbitrary. There's a huge amount of academic snobbery around all this."

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, told The TES: "Admissions tutors do not only focus on qualifications; they take a range of other factors into account when assessing the potential of a cnadidate. Russell Group universities are always happy to consider the merits of a range of examinations and subjects as possible entry routes into their courses."

Winning blends

- Leading universities say they are only against particular combinations of A-levels, not individual subjects.

- Cambridge University says applicants with more than one of their three A-levels in the following would not normally be considered: accounting, art and design, business studies, communication studies, dance, design and technology, drama and theatre studies, film studies, health and social care, home economics, information and communication technology, leisure studies, media studies, music technology, performance studies, performing arts, photography, physical education, sports studies, and travel and tourism.

- Cambridge also lists a further five subjects, taken as part of the International Baccalaureate, which could hamper applicants' chances: business and management, design and technology, information technology in a global society, and theatre arts and visual arts.

- 93% of media studies and 82% of PE students came from non-selective schools in 2006.

- Teachers can search for guidance on subject choice on Go to Course Search, then Entry Profiles.

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