It may be the August Bank Holiday, but there’s no rest for the wicked this weekend.
I’m busy teaching on the Get into Medical School course I run alongside my good friend Neel. Today was training on the course we offer specifically for that exam; tomorrow will be our regular general course covering all aspects of applying to study medicine, including how to choose a medical school, the application process, writing a good personal statement and interview advice.
The course is generally fun to teach, and it’s good to meet tomorrow’s doctors. But I have to admit that the UKCAT day (and theone we run for that exam later in the year) can be a little tiring due to the vast amount of content we have to cover in a relatively short space of time. There are a lot of worked examples we have to get through, and those can feel a little repetitive at times. That’s good for the students of course, as that’s how they will learn, but it is quite draining for those teaching.
More fundamentally, I find it a shame that these students have to sit all these extra exams. When I applied to medical school, we just had to sit our A-levels. UKCAT and BMAT didn’t exist, and if you were applying to Oxford, you could opt to sit a special entrance exam instead. If you chose to do so, and did well on that exam and the subsequent interview, you could obtain an unconditional offer to get in, which really took the pressure off the rest of the final year at school. I was fortunate enough to get one of those offers, and it certainly made that last year lots of fun!
Exams such as UKCAT and BMAT were introduced with the dual aims of better distinguishing between candidates with equally good A-level predictions, as well as being fairer in terms of testing potential and intelligence rather than differentially rewarding those from schools with the funding to coach students towards good A-levels and those with fewer resources.
I would argue that they more or less meet the first objective; they certainly provide universities with more data with which differentiate candidates. However this would not have been necessary if A-levels themselves adequately distinguished between the merely good and the truly great. The introduction of an A* grade at A-level may help reverse this trend, but given the experience of the starred grade at the lower GCSE level, I rather doubt it will do more than encourage further grade inflation.
The tests certainly fail the test of levelling the playing field between rich/well-resourced students and those from less privileged backgrounds. Firstly, the very act of creating more hurdles will discourage those from traditionally less aspirational, poorer-prepared and system-unsavvy backgrounds. Secondly, each of these extra exams carries with it a entry fee. This is set at a relatively trivial level for the well-off, but this is not always the case for others. Finally, both tests reward extra coaching and preparation since familiarity with the tests improves performance dramatically, regardless of what the examiners claim. Thus, those with the awareness to practice in advance, get coaching from their school, or attend courses like ours, will score better results than those who do not. In a very real sense, our course negates that general bias somewhat, since at least our course is a relatively small one-off cost, compared to ongoing expensive school fees, though of course it still rewards those who attend as opposed to those who do not.
The real solution would be to make A-levels themselves more challenging and more discriminatory (in the best sense of the word), to distinguish not just between good and bad candidates, but also between good, very good and excellent students. And then to prevent that discriminatory challenge from being eroded by progressive grade inflation.
If all that could be achieved, we could return to the older, simpler, days when A-levels alone were sufficient exams and candidates would not be subject to so much unnecessary stress from the whole process.