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Based on my poll, which is a question that does really interest me,… - Sally's Journal
January 25th, 2005
10:38 pm

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Based on my poll, which is a question that does really interest me, as well as a way to procrastinate writing yet another presentation, I've been musing a little.

1) It seems to be fairly uncontroversal to say that people should get to Cambridge regardless of their backgrounds, if they are academically deserving.

(lets make this specifically about maths, it may carry across or it may not, I don't know much about other subjects)

2) It also seems to be fairly uncontroversal to say that there is no point putting people on the Cambridge maths course if they can't get an A in A-level maths. Regardless of whether this is their fault or not, they will sink like a stone if they're not on the bottom step when they get here. If they can't understand the first lecture they can't benifit from the new opportunities.

3) Lots of people have argued that there are people "bright enough for Cambridge" who "can't get the grades." This is said to be due to poor teaching, or bad home circumstances, peer pressure, illness, or similar.

4) We can't just make these people easier Cambridge offers no matter how deserving they are (see point (2) )

So what it appears is needed is some sort of cross between a Cambridge college and a sixthform college - where we take people who come across as really bright and with a huge amount of potential in interview, but really arn't up to scratch with their background knowledge and skill level through no fault of their own. And we give them grants for (a year?), take them out of the messy home situation, give them independence, resources, and motivating peers. Lots of people gap year, so they wouldn't be at a huge disadvantage age wise. And then at the end, if they're good enough without any "soft offers", we let them in, and they'll do well.

I suppose this is the idea behind the greek summerschool, except they don't make the radical step of saying "but if you can't pull your socks up in this environment we won't take you". And the idea behind many of the access weekends / gifted children weekends etc.

Now all I need is for the government to give me enough money to found it...

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From:smhwpf
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:05 pm (UTC)
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Yeah... a lot of Unis do have summer schools for people who've missed out on the conventional route - in fact my mum, stepdad, sister and brother all went to Dundee Uni that route and did very well!

What is interesting is that studies tend to show that students from poorer backgrounds and worse schools do better at University - including, I believe, places like Cambridge, than people from richer backgrounds and better schools with the same grades. Makes sense, really; if they've got to the same place from a worse start, it probably means they've got more intrinsic ability. So there is some case for accepting students from poorer backgrounds with weaker grades.
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From:feanelwa
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC)
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And we're already practised at deciding whether or not a particular lecture or class is going to be worth turning up to and finding alternative primary sources for when it isn't.
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From:fluffymark
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:07 pm (UTC)
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From what I've been led to believe, in the old days (early 20th century and before. Well before anything like UCAS existed) there was a gap between school and university, where you did exactly that. The way it worked was that you'd finish school, get your exam results and *then* apply to university. You'd spend a few months swotting up on extrance exams, apply to several colleges, and only when you were good enough would a college accept you. It took longer, but made much more sense, and would mean you'd be ready for it when you got in.

I know this as the 2 years of sixth form at my school are oddly named lower sixth and middle sixth. Inevitably I had to ask what had happened to upper sixth, and was told it used to exist, and got the above description of it being the year you used to study and apply for university in, having finished school proper at the end of middle sixth. It then got obsoleted when they changed the system.

So what you are proposing amounts to the reintroduction of upper sixth forms. A very good idea. I've taught 1st year maths undergraduates, and some of them display levels of ignorance amounting to what should have failed their GCSEs.
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From:atreic
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC)
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what you are proposing amounts to the reintroduction of upper sixth forms

Yes, but then you'd just get the problem of good and bad upper sixth forms. I'm proposing *a* upper sixth form, a residential place that takes people away from any excuses of Bad Stuff* in their lives and gives them a level playing field to see what they can really do.

*I know, a Bad Thing can be a (valid) excuse years after it has ended, and moving town doesn't solve all problems. But if you can't focus enough to get through A-levels you can't focus enough to do well at degree level. I think. Yes, there will always be people that it is a crying shame that the world messed up, but sending them to Cambridge Uni won't fix them or make them happier if the above scheme doesn't.
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From:deborah_c
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
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Seventh term entry exams to Cambridge still existed even in my day, actually, and as far as I remember I wasn't born in the early 20th Century. Of course, that might just be old age affecting my memory.

Personally, I found that doing entrance exams at the start of my upper sixth (in the conventional sense, i.e. 4th term of sixth form) made me much more relaxed about my A levels; if I'd been under more pressure on the results I think I might not have done so well.
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From:atreic
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:22 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure the presence of later entry exams helps if there isn't some way of improving the knowledge of disadvantaged candidates before the exam... Hence why I think you have to take them away "to uni" on training courses.
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From:fluffymark
Date:January 25th, 2005 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Anything before the 1980s is early 20th century. Or thereabouts.
From:yrieithydd
Date:January 26th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC)
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From what I've been led to believe, in the old days (early 20th century and before. Well before anything like UCAS existed) there was a gap between school and university, where you did exactly that. The way it worked was that you'd finish school, get your exam results and *then* apply to university. You'd spend a few months swotting up on extrance exams, apply to several colleges, and only when you were good enough would a college accept you. It took longer, but made much more sense, and would mean you'd be ready for it when you got in.

The whole system then (AFAICT from random things picked up in the course of my life) was more flexible, probably because it was smaller. In the course of the 20th century the school leaving age went from 11* to 16 (with a period of it being 14) although bright kids where able to stay on longer. There were problems like this. There were those told things like 'Grammar school isn't for the likes of us' (my great-grandfather to my paternal grandfather) and had to leave. Nowadays, although 16 is still the official leaving age, doing A levels is very common and they (or equivalent) are needed for many decent jobs. Similarly going on to university is pretty much expected (and the govt think 50% should go --- this is stupid, that's not what universities are about) of middle class kids and for the next tier of jobs. As more people stay in the system longer, the system has got more and more rigid and nationally controlled and more like a sausage factory. One has to do the requisite number of courses and pass them. Getting a broad understanding of one's subject isn't necessarily necessary!

*Well, I know it was 11 at some point and think that was probably still the case in the early 20th C, ICBW.
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From:sphyg
Date:January 26th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC)
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I think Cambridge is overrated.
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From:sphyg
Date:January 26th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC)
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s/Cambridge/Oxbridge/
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From:feanelwa
Date:January 26th, 2005 12:18 am (UTC)
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Sounds like a good idea to me. If you want anybody to teach in a few years' time when I have the bits of paper to show that I know things, just ask! Assuming of course I don't get barred from teaching for talking inane crap, or anything.
From:neonchameleon
Date:January 26th, 2005 12:39 am (UTC)
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It also seems to be fairly uncontroversal to say that there is no point putting people on the Cambridge maths course if they can't get an A in A-level maths.

I think you're setting the bar a little low - you want Further Maths as well (at least in Oxford).

On the other hand, the Cambridge offers involving STEP Maths make things really hard for people from state schools - few places offer those qualifications.
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From:atreic
Date:January 26th, 2005 09:13 am (UTC)
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Look, we had a 60 comment rant over whether you should set the bar low or not. I wanted an argument based on the least controversal thing I could say. I would agree that if you can't do further maths or step you're also going to flounder really badly at Cambridge (although I have a friend who failed his step offer and then went on to get a first in his first year) but I'm not sure everyone would. Whereas I think it would be a brave person to say point (2) was not true.

As far as the second point goes, offers involving Step maths make things really hard for everyone. OK, I'm prepaired to believe there are some people out there at really high pressure public schools that do get good step teaching, but I know lots of people from good state schools / state grammers / private schools who had no help at all. I went and bought Siklos' book, the past papers, and the answer sets, explained to my maths teacher (who luckilly was a good person and prepaired to get me out of PE once a week for a step lesson, but I had to ask, and then fight my corner quite a bit) and got on with it. I would say that the vast majority of people sitting step have to find their own question sets and their own tuition. TBH tuition really doesn't help much, as there are very few teaching mathematicians who can do step questions.

And while I hated it at the time, I do feel in a way it was necessary. A-level maths is contentfree, with predictable questions where they just change the numbers. If you have a fair natural gift for maths you can pass it easilly by memorising a large recipe book and never having to think for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. Cambridge questions are not like that. Cambridge thinking isn't like that. And Step, while being cruel and nasty and mean, is a very good introduction to the type of maths you need to be able to do when you get to Cambridge.
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From:aldabra
Date:January 26th, 2005 11:06 am (UTC)
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My best friend at Oxford didn't have Further Maths at A level (and was at a school who had never sent anyone to Oxbridge before, in a different country). She got a First (and prizes in professional exams and Christ knows what). (Whereas I did have Further Maths and was from an Oxbridge factory and floundered rapidly because it was all so tedious.)
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From:chess
Date:January 26th, 2005 09:12 am (UTC)
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Lots of universities do a Foundation Year; Cambridge just doesn't because they get enough people anyway and so don't actually need to take people they have to do something special with.
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From:anchovie
Date:January 29th, 2005 10:35 am (UTC)
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Yeah, it's the norm in France, I believe, because university is very competitive there (and much cheaper than en Angleterre..).
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