A history teacher may have messed up a maths star's future
03 January 2018
Kate (not her real name) is one of the most conscientious teenagers I know. She is the sort of student that any university would be proud to have on its books. But the current system seems to have added an arbitrary hurdle that might prevent her from getting into one of the UK's top universities where she wants to study maths.
Kate was born with a condition that made it hard for her to articulate words, which made learning difficult. But by the time she had started in secondary school she had overcome this hurdle and was doing well if not excelling. While she worked hard at school, she also found time to learn three musical instruments to a high standard and to join a folk band, while also doing work in the community.
As GCSEs approached, she stepped up a gear. Her GCSE results at her comprehensive school were excellent across the board, in music, languages and science, but what stood out were her A* in maths, and her A* with distinction in further maths. She was clearly one of the top maths achievers in the country. She also got an A* in history.
She decided on double maths for A Level, and while she could have chosen a science as her third subject, her great GCSE result in history - a subject she really enjoyed - swayed her to take that to A Level instead. But she knew she wanted to read maths at university, and started studying for the Cambridge STEP entrance paper. Although she'd set her heart on Cambridge, she also loved St Andrew's. And Manchester was her third favourite.
Then her school threw a spanner into the works.
Based on coursework in Year 12, the teachers made their predictions of her A Level grades. They were confident that she would get A's in both maths papers, but for History they predicted a B. She had found the tough new syllabus for A Level history a challenge and the school didn't want to over-predict on grades. But what the school apparently refused to take into account was Kate's incredible track record of taking on challenges like this and succeeding. Her A* at GCSE was ignored.
That predicted B grade was a huge problem. She was told that neither Cambridge nor St Andrew's would consider applicants for a maths degree unless they were predicted to get at least three A's at A Level. The predicted B would also count against her in Manchester. Kate pulled out of the STEP maths lessons she'd been attending so she could spend more time on her history, but the history department still wouldn't change her predicted grade.
It's not the end of the road. Kate might be able to take a year out and re-apply to university after her A Levels. Maybe St Andrew's and Manchester will read her personal statement and ignore their rule about straight A's. But all this makes me wonder how many teenagers who excel in their chosen subject - be that maths, physics or modern languages - are never considered by the top universities because of arbitrary assessments made by teachers of subjects that are almost irrelevant to the teenager's future. Imagine if Stephen Hawking had been turned down for Cambridge because his teacher thought he was not good enough at French.
Of course there will be hard luck stories whichever admissions system is used, but a system that is based on teachers' predictions is very unsatisfactory. It must be hard for a teacher to ignore personal biases towards or against certain students, and there will surely be pushy parents who successfully lobby for a higher grade for their child, at the expense of one who doesn't have anybody to make their case.
What's particularly annoying about this is that, knowing Kate, I'd be amazed if she doesn't get an A in History. But when she emerges with straight A's next summer, it might be too late.