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‘We’re preparing our army for the last war’: why the academic-vocational divide must fall

Blog Editor, IOE Digital30 November 2017

IOE Events. 
Vocational education suffers from its second class status – variously seen as a ‘consolation prize’ and ‘for other people’s children’. It deserves better – for its own sake and for the sake of social justice, but also, as the speakers at the IOE’s second ‘What if…’ event this week noted, for the sake of our economy.
As Tony Little, chief academic officer of GEMS Education and former headmaster of Eton, remarked, ‘we’re preparing our army for the last war’; the economy and labour market are changing fast, and young people need a broader education. As evidenced by November’s Budget and Industrial Strategy, the government itself seems to have woken from its slumber on skills, and vocational education’s time has come (again). We have been here before, of course, so how can things be different this time around?
Also responding to the question, What if… we really wanted to overcome the academic-vocational divide? were (more…)

Grade prediction system means the brightest, poorest students can miss out on top university places

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 December 2016

Gillian Wyness
With UK tuition fees now among the highest in the world, but benefits from having a degree remaining substantial, choosing the right university has never been more important for young people. The government has tried to make this easier by offering more and more information not just on the university experience but on the quality of the institution and even the potential wage return students could reap.
Despite all these efforts to make the decision about where to apply as informed as possible, one issue remains: students still apply to university based on their predicted rather than actual qualifications. And these predictions are not always accurate.
Using information on university applicants’ actual and predicted grades and their university attended, obtained from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), I find only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grades that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best 3 A-levels. My report for the UCU is published today.
Whilst the majority of predicted grades were within 1-2 points (more…)

A fairer deal for top International Baccalaureate students

Blog Editor, IOE Digital30 April 2014

Francis Green
It seems that Leeds University and Kings College London have decided to become more generous to their applicants with the International Baccalaureate, lowering the grade equivalents with A-levels. Where once they asked for 39 points (out of a rare maximum of 45), now they will ask for around 35. A good thing too. For too long now, the upper tier of universities have been far too snooty about the IB. Our research at the IOE showed that top universities did not appreciate how well their IB students were doing.
We compared IB and A-level students who make the same decision on university and subject. The principle we used is that the equivalence map between the IB grades and A-levels should be such that IB and A-level students on average are shown to do equally well. We deployed the power of large numbers. Looking at all those students who graduated in 2010, we compared our equivalence map with the map that universities were in practice using. We found that:

  • In the middle ranks the universities’ guesses were broadly right: IB students performed similarly to A level students in middle-ranking universities that recruited IB applicants with grades in the low 30s. At the bottom end, students who barely passed the IB (pass mark 24) performed a little worse than their fellow students who had been admitted with low A-levels.
  • At the top end of the scale, however, universities’ IB students performed significantly better than those they mistakenly thought were similar A level students. In other words, the ‘high-ranking’ universities were asking for too high grades from their IB applicants. Any IB students rejected because they did not quite achieve the very high grades asked for (around 38, 39) could feel aggrieved, as they would have done at least as well on average at their chosen subject as accepted A level students.
  • We excluded Oxford and Cambridge from our analysis because of their intensive selection processes which dominate exam grades as their selection filter. Nevertheless, their admissions tutors frequently appear to ask for unreasonably high IB points (often as high as 42 at Cambridge) compared to the grades asked of their A level students, most of whom have very little trouble in achieving the top A-level grades asked for, once given their conditional offers.

Now don’t get me wrong: it is quite easy to misread research of this nature, thinking that it proves IB is a better preparation for university than A-levels: it does not. As anyone with any contact with IB knows, on the whole the IB has attracted more academically capable students over the years. Of course, more academically-capable students do better academically! The argument that IB is best might be valid, but it would be difficult to set up a statistical test, not to mention a quasi-experiment, that would seriously evaluate that claim. It is very difficult to find adequate ‘controls’ that mimic the counterfactual case for a school-student that opts for A-levels instead of IB.