Taking the easy option?

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Emma Burstall and Mike Prestage ask exam candidates in Staffordshire and Swansea why they make the A-level choices they do are they pushed by schools and colleges eager for high pass rates?

When she arrived at Swansea College Helen Thomas took about 10 minutes to decide which A-levels she would take. She was given a stack of course cards and told to divide them into "not blooming likely" and "I don't mind that" piles and then make a choice. And by such means she arrived at sociology.

The 16-year-old had already decided on law and French but chose sociology because it looked interesting. Science subjects were never in the frame because "I didn't like science at all and that was reflected in my grades".

Scott Pugh, also 16, chose English and French because he had enjoyed them at GCSE and achieved high grades.

His third choice of computing was influenced by his mother, who is doing a degree course in the subject. "I thought if I got stuck she will be able to help me out."

The two are part of a tutorial group in which everyone chose arts subjects. Most want to go to university but few have firm career plans. Help at school and college on choosing subjects varied from superficial to detailed.

Swansea College is the largest single FE college in Wales with 200 pupils starting full time A-level courses this year with a further 700 studying part-time.

Like many of the 16-year-olds arriving for enrolment, Amy Powell selected subjects for A-level which she had done best with at GCSE. She will take French, English and history, with which she achieved three As in GCSE.

"There was no advice given on what A-levels to take. I just chose what I was good at. I was told that if I didn't think the course was for me I could change," she says.

"Science subjects were not something I considered. I didn't like science at school at all and at our school chemistry was terribly taught and I hated the teacher."

Emma-Jane Woozley enrolled for French and communications and praised the help she was given when she arrived at the college. "I had no idea what I wanted to do. The course cards gave a lot of detail and staff helped me choose."

Natalie Fraser wanted to do business studies and computing because she wants to go into business at the end of the course. She wanted to do French as well but the vagaries of the timetabling made it impossible. "I picked Spanish though I have never studied it before."

Anthony Collins, 17, transferred to a sixth form at Olchfa comprehensive in Swansea last year because his own school didn't have a sixth form. Initially he studied biology, geography and economics, but switched to Swansea College because he didn't like the rules and uniform at school.

He took a double science course at GCSE and achieved As, and thought he would be able to do biology.

"I like science and did well at school, but even though I have A grades I found the biology course too hard. The GCSE course was not a good enough training for biology A-level. Those who had done a triple science course had a large advantage."

If he had been given better advice at school he feels he would have taken the triple science course and continued with science subjects at A-level. As it is, Anthony is now studying geography, business studies and PE.

Students in a science tutorial group appeared to have researched their choice in far more detail than their counterparts in arts subjects. They had clearer ideas of possible careers and were taking subjects to achieve that.

Seventeen-year-old Mark Richards lives near a tertiary college in Neath, but has opted to travel to Swansea to take A-levels because he feels it better suits the courses he wants to take and has better facilities.

After GCSEs he took a year out before deciding on a career as an electrical engineer. He is taking maths, physics and computing A-level and an AS-level in electronics.

Justin Whitelock, 16, had little help at school in deciding what subjects to take but got some guidance after a summer job in an architect's office. It is a career he wants to follow and his choice of subjects - physics, graphic communications and art - should help him.

Cyril Lewis, principal at the college, says there was a 90 per cent success rate at A-level last year and despite competition from school sixth forms, it has continued to attract large numbers of A-level students because of its range of subjects - nearly 40 - and its facilities.

"One of the things we have to wrestle with each year is that every student is an individual with different needs. The great challenge is in offering the right pastoral care and tutorial support. It can never reach perfection but it is something we are confidently striving to improve," he says.

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