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paul hyett

Why A levels are irrelevant for aspiring architects

In three years time, the distinctions awarded with degree qualifications will most likely go to students with the best A-level results: those with two A grades and a B or those with the lowest, that is, three D grades or less.

This is the chilling truth revealed by the research of the admissions department which tracks students' progress at one of our leading universities. And it's a truth that opens up a hornet's nest of arguments between those academics who continue to insist that A levels are a worthy and reliable guide to appropriate candidates, and those who insist that A levels, while being a convenient form of entry assessment, are not only misleading in terms of aptitude and potential, but also deny access to many of our best potential architects.

The A-level gateway also tends to discriminate against the less advantaged in our society - particularly the ethnic minorities. (See this column, AJ 10.6.99).

But it's not only the academics and the admissions bureaucrats who drive this requirement for high A-level intakes. One university has progressively raised the standards stated in its prospectus in order to attract applications from students whose middle-class parents would otherwise discourage them from applying to schools with perceived low standards. (Offers at lower pass rates are then made to those showing promise after interview!)

The 7 per cent fall off in applications to first-year courses reported in aj last week will at least have some useful effect in reversing this silly trend towards ever higher A-level grades. That will surely be an advantage, at least to those schools where demand for places is weaker.

But I think we should go much further in contemplating the real benefits of a less 'academic' approach to entry; because in architecture, which for most is a vocational subject, the skills required are not adequately measured or reflected through the A-level examination system.

I am, of course, thinking of communication skills ('dig that trench deeper' or 'take that lousy plaster off now'), as well as skills involved in client liaison, marketing skills, and business acumen; management skills, abilities to co-ordinate and, of course, the (often) instinctive creative abilities that are so necessary to the survival and success of most architects.

In this respect we should take a look at the medics who have been forced by a severe shortage of doctors to review both intake and training. They have at last come to realise that their high A-level requirements (two As plus a B in science-based subjects) have not only led to a shortage of supply, but have created an elite profession, members of which all too often combine high qualifications with a lousy bedside manner.

Where are all those doctors who want to heal, rather than research, many have asked? And how can a profession maintain its credibility when its members do not reflect the population if serves?

In response the gmc has approved a series of innovative courses which include a four-year fast-track training regimen for graduates of any discipline 'who fancy wearing a white coat'. 'Out' is the science orientation and 'in' is a new access route for students who may be in difficulty making the grades at A level.

So, if you know aspiring architects whose recent A-level results were poor, dissuade them from resits and all that nonsense, and suggest that they shop around. Somewhere, there will be a riba/arb-recognised course which suits them well.

I got only a D and an E, yet Canterbury welcomed me and gave me renewed confidence. Roy Caddick and Stuart Lowther joined me there (again on relatively low A-level points) yet each has since had a very successful career - respectively as partners in Watkins Grey and Elsom Pack Roberts. So did Ian Douglas, now a senior architect with Pascall Watson.

Peter Jacob got only two Es, yet his subsequent career has been distinguished - he is now professor of architecture at Kingston University. A levels aren't everything. Indeed, many of our so-called star architects wouldn't qualify for any course in the country.

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