My children are two academic years apart. Another Mum recently expressed sympathy that this year we have GCSEs and A-Levels taking place together. But the revision and stress over exams is nothing compared to all the deliberation about ‘what next’ that happens at 16 and 18.
Orli Vogt-Vincent (a 16 year old student) has written on the Guardian website about Stem Subject Snobbery. Despite being a passionate advocate of STEM subjects, I share her concerns completely. The arts are too frequently seen as less important subjects than science and humanities. Without them however, a school student misses out not only on the opportunity to develop skills and talents and, perhaps more importantly, the chance to explore and grow as a whole person. The EBacc may have started out with good intentions but if this results in side-lining the performing and expressive arts (music, drama, dance, art etc) it is surely bad news for the students, and the country as a whole.
I was at a meeting last week discussing the next phase of Made Here Now and a plea was made to recognise the value of Design and Technology in the curriculum. This again is another subject which clearly offers something unique in our education system: project work, the opportunity to design and create, developing creative problem-solving skills and producing a complete portfolio of ideas. It seems bizarre that the Design and Technology Association felt it needed to create a video to explain what D & T is and why it matters in our education system.
How is this affecting my support of my children’s choices? My son chose Maths, Physics, Computing and Music as AS-levels and I had assumed he would drop Music when going into year 13. But he chose to drop Computing, which I now know was the right choice. I won’t discuss how much he is working towards his A2 but music is definitely an integral part of his life (I think he has 4 guitars in his room now and I frequently hear a wonderfully eclectic mix of music created and played) that there is no doubt he has chosen a subject that he enjoys. It is also wonderfully delivered at his school: over 15 extra-curricular music groups performed at the summer concert last year from the Rock Band to the Flute Quartet, the Ukulele Group to the Funk Band and the Recorder Ensemble to the Male Voice Choir.
So, to my daughter’s choices: Here I have Orli’s words ringing in my head. My daughter could choose pretty well any of her GCSE subjects to do at A level (we have discussed other options but she is adamant she wants to stay at the same school and do A levels). She had assumed she could start with 4 (like her brother) and had chosen Product Design, Art, Maths and Physics but her school now only allows 3 for most students (due to the changes in the AS curriculum).
How should she choose?
- Which she will enjoy most? (Product Design, Art and perhaps English or maybe Physics?)
- Which she will do best at? (Maths, Product Design and History or Biology?)
- Which will keep open the doors for further study / careers she (after careers interview, uni visit and work-experience) has expressed interest in? (Product Design, Maths and Physics?)
So, if I encourage her to do Physics rather than Art, am I making her put my career-expectations above her subject enjoyment? Encouraging girls to take physics if they are interested and able is a cornerstone of my in work championing girls’ opportunities in engineering. She doesn’t dislike it, and is able.
While my son was looking at uni courses and other post-18 opportunities, we have taken a quick look at the impact of A-level choices for my daughter. What doors is she keeping open with physics that would otherwise close AND does that matter to her? If the physics turns out to be a 3rd subject (where she just needs to get a certain grade for a uni but that subject is not required) would she have been better off choosing a subject she might find easier? (Note: I did not say an ‘easier subject’ – it depends on the student). All in all, I feel it would be a well-informed decision!
While I am delighted that Orli is so happy doing Dance and Drama (and I am disappointed some fellow students do not value these as ‘proper’ subjects) my priority is that all students are making truly informed choices; especially girls. They need to be informed about what studying these subjects will entail, how hard they will have to work, what doors will be opened (or closed) for them and whether or not they are likely to enjoy them and do well. Neither gender-stereotyping nor STEM-snobbery should play any role!
What choices have my children made? My son has accepted offers from Salford University for Audio Acoustics and Bangor University for Electronic Engineering and Music, while my daughter has opted for Product Design, Maths and Physics …. and Further Maths. But first ‘we’ need to get through the GCSEs and A levels.