Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

A degree place without A-levels

By Katherine Sellgren
Education reporter, BBC News

Acorn School classroom
Pupils at Acorn school have continuous teacher assessment

The average teenager's university application forms will include a string of GCSE results and predicted or actual A-level or Higher grades.

But pupils at a small school in Gloucestershire do not take any of these exams and yet some still manage to get a place at university.

Applications from pupils at the fee-paying Acorn School, in Nailsworth, make it clear that their school does not recognise public examinations.

Instead of accruing the usual crop of qualifications as proof of academic ability, pupils at the school present admissions tutors with a bound book of samples of their work and a graded progress report from their teachers.

The applications also show pupils' punctuality and attendance record.

A total of 45 pupils from the school have gained a university place without formal qualifications and of the 12 who have already graduated, all but two got a 2:1.

Graeme Whiting
Graeme Whiting does not value GCSEs and A-levels

For Graeme Whiting, founder and head teacher of the school, the public examination system does not ensure a balanced education for children and is not the best preparation for university.

"GCSEs and A-levels are corrupt, they're a way of monitoring six million children," says Mr Whiting. "I've never agreed with them - they're too shallow and narrow."

Mr Whiting has devised his own curriculum for pupils in the upper school (age 14 upwards), where regular teacher tests record how pupils are progressing.

Lure of GCSEs

For most parents though, it would be very daunting to put their children through the school system, only to come out with no formal qualifications.

And with the majority of the pupils at Acorn School coming from highly privileged backgrounds, there is the sense that these families can absorb the risk of taking an unconventional approach to schooling.

Even for some Acorn parents, the pressure to have formally recognised qualifications has proven too much.

Pupil Camilla, 17, says: "Some people's parents panic when they get to 14 and think they have to have GCSEs. They think it's what everyone has and universities want."

Camilla says some people have left to sit GCSEs and A-levels

Lucy Lowsley-Williams, whose four children have attended the school, says parents have to have a certain mindset to commit to exam-free schooling.

"You have to have the guts to do it and you've got to be committed to go through with it."

Simon Dawson, who has two children at the school aged seven and eight, says he can understand why parents feel the pressure for their children to have official qualifications.

"I must admit I used to think we'd bail out somewhere down the line, but if you pull a child out a 14, you're compromising things and pulling out at the wrong moment.

"Those years where you get your GCSEs and A-levels - it's easy to conform to that and delude yourself that's what it's all about."

'Something different'

Mr Dawson says with more and more pupils achieving high grades, pupils with an alternative academic background may have an advantage.

"Universities are changing because they're overwhelmed by three As and are looking for something different."

Simon Dawson
Simon Dawson says universities are looking for something more than As

Lucy Lowsley-Williams adds: "They're interesting, they've got so much to give, they stand out from the crowd."

Janet Graham, director of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions which advises the higher education sector, says universities are increasingly flexible in assessing applicants' potential.

"Universities are used to dealing with all comers. Most have policies on less common entry routes because if people apply, they want to consider them.

"It does make institutions lives more complicated, but they're used to that."

The umbrella group Universities UK says: "Universities make strenuous efforts to seek out potential by looking at a number of factors when selecting students.

"The A-level, and other qualifications, are still the best predictors in measuring skills and knowledge, but they are only one of a number of factors that universities take into account when making decisions."

Pupils 'encouraged'

The pupils themselves at the Acorn School say they feel less constrained by not sitting the usual round of exams faced by most teenagers.

James, 17
James, 17, wishes he had come to the school sooner

James, 17, says: "I'd rather learn how to live my life than pass exams. Coming here has made me a better person and made me learn more - I've been here a year and I wish I'd come earlier.

Classmate Malcolm, also 17, adds: "Everyone here wants to work, but we don't have exams to prove it, so we have to do so by working hard."

Wave, 15, values the emphasis on the whole person: "Here you are encouraged rather than pressurised.

"A lot of it is about building a personality and getting you ready for life, it's not all about knowledge."

Luke, 14, says: "When you come to get a job, it's not based on two hours at the end of the year - it's your grade sheet which is continuous.

"Acorn teaches you how to live your life not just pass exams."

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