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Students prefer old-style route

Students at Hackney Community College in east London, if not spoilt for choice, have an impressive array of courses to choose from, many leading to new vocational qualifications.

But, for those who have set their sights on one of the older professions, the preference will be for something more traditional, like A-levels.

The college's sixth-form centre has, over the past five years, earned itself a reputation for good A-level results, despite being in one of the country's most deprived boroughs. Each year a steady trickle of sixth-form students get to medical school, no mean feat given Hackney's weak performance at GCSE.

One such medical school hopeful is first-year A-level student Spyros Tzortzis. Would he have considered GNVQs instead of A-levels? "I've got friends doing the new NVQs and BTECs, but they haven't covered as much as we have and there are rumours that they are much easier than A-levels. I've always considered A-levels as the thing to do after GCSEs."

Ela Maisuria, a fellow first-year student and another potential medic, agrees. "My perception is that A-levels are best. Universities prefer students who have studied at A-level rather than other qualifications, it's a traditional thing," she says.

And what could be more traditional than the medical profession, for so long a white, male, middle-class preserve. But neither Spyros nor Ela seem much worried by medicine's orthodox image. What they want is the chance to get the right grades, hence the attraction of the sixth-form centre's science department, which they had heard was "one of the best".

Tom Cooper, head of chemistry at the centre, says he was surprised when six years ago the first student from the college went to medical school.

He recalls how that student, after working long hours in his father's kebab shop, was at college bright and early "waiting to get work marked".

Such determination is crucial to success but it needs the right environment to be translated into hard results. "In Hackney, the students coming from the secondary schools are intelligent but lack that general educational background," Tom Cooper says.

The science department provides a compulsory maths for scientists slot which is essential if students want the top grades in physics and chemistry; and, as well as pastoral support, work placements are provided to broaden students' experience. "We have to improve their confidence, and I'm surprised how well it works," he says.

Alex Paget, a second year A-level student, has lived most of her life in Hackney. She had always been attracted to medicine, but a placement working with disabled children at a Mencap centre during the summer holidays confirmed it for her.

She has now survived her first interview (for St Bartholomew's), and says that the other interviewees seemed socially and culturally mixed with a good ratio of women to men.

Ikram Ahmed, another second year, already has two offers from the Royal Free and the Royal London. A Somali, she came to this country when she was 13 having already gained experience of what hospital life was like. "At my interview at the Royal London Hospital, the panel was very interested in what I'd done at the hospital in Somalia.

"They said I was very young to be doing those things, but I explained it was more like nursing."

Did she feel, coming from such a different background, that she wouldn't fit in? "When I first arrived for the interview I thought 'I don't belong' because they all seemed to be from public schools and there weren't many girls, only three.

But, she says philosophically, one step at time; the grades come first (her offers are both for three Bs). How has she found the sixthform centre? She smiles. "It's like being part of a family."

Edited by Ian Nash

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