Proof that they're more than just bookworms

Nicolas Barnard reports on the increasing popularity of the University Award Scheme

While debate rages on the front pages of national newspapers about extra courses to teach sixth-formers basic skills like literacy and numeracy, hundreds of colleges are already signed up to a scheme that does just that.

The University Award Scheme is a national programme which gives A-level students credit for their core skills.

Its take-up has been so great that a number of universities are already awarding points to students who can show they have successfully completed it. And these points are very influential when their applications to university are being considered.

The award has been born out of work piloted by ASDAN, the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network, which ironically was established to give recognition to the non-academic skills of under-achieving pupils or those with learning difficulties.

Now of course it is the academic high-flyers who need to prove to their future employers that they are not just boffins or bookworms but that they can write, add up, work in a team and solve practical problems.

The ASDAN scheme has won plaudits from Sir Ron Dearing, and could provide a model for the proposed key skills qualification which could still result from Labour's post-16 review this autumn.

Students develop their own portfolios, outlining at least three challenges they have faced which demonstrate possession of the five core skills - application of number, information technology, communication, improving one's own learning and performance, and working with others.

Some challenges may be related to their course, such as a field trip. Others come from careers, college activities such as community work or sport, or from outside the college - planning a holiday abroad, say, or taking a driving test.

Students' portfolios outline how the challenges demonstrate different key skills.

The portfolio is validated first inside the college and then externally By one of ASDAN's meetings of consortia.

For the full award, the work adds up to around 120 hours over the two years of an A-level course. Mark Reader, ASDAN's head of modular programme, calls it flexible and student-friendly - like all of the network's schemes.

"All our programmes are designed to acknowledge the fact that a whole variety of learning takes place beyond the set curriculum.

"They are a framework that teachers and lecturers can tap into," he says.

He is pleased the lead ASDAN took is being taken up nationally. "It's an endorsement of the things we've been talking about for so long," he says.

"It's the result of being in tune with people who have their feet on the ground in schools, colleges and universities.

"People in universities have been saying we need gold standards to make judgments, but there are other skills we need our undergraduates to have because it means they will make the most of their opportunities here. And it helps young people identify they can have a greater role in their own learning. "

Similar but simplified schemes are run for students on intermediate or foundation-level courses.

One college that has been impressed enough by the University Award to make it compulsory for all A-level students is SEEVIC - South-east Essex Sixth-form College in Benfleet.

Dr Jon NayDeputy, SEEVIC's deputy principal, says the award fitted the college's aims of preparing students for university and for work - and kept SEEVIC "ahead of the game".

He admits there has been "an amount of student resistance - students can be very narrow. They just want their A-level grades. But many have put their heart and soul into it."

The scheme is considered particularly rewarding for those students who aren't A-grade material but who may be good communicators or work hard in the community. Like other colleges in the scheme, SEEVIC has an arrangement with a local university - in this case Anglia Polytechnic University - which means the award is recognised by admissions tutors. Anglia Poly gives a full award up to six points.

"We feel we are giving the students a rounded curriculum. And there are dividends for the students," Dr Nay says.

"I don't know if you can credit it in terms of results - though our results are better than before. But we are addressing this idea that a sixth-form education is just about A-levels"

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