The vast majority of Oundle School pupils start the Lower Sixth Form studying four A level or Pre-U subjects. Of these, over 90% drop one subject before the end of the year, but unlike at many other schools, you are not allowed to drop a subject before the end of the second term of the Lower Sixth.
The vast majority of Oundelians also choose to take a fifth subject in the form of an extension course, with most opting for an Extended Project Qualification or a Quadrivium course. To prepare for this article and the next, Charles Aldous and myself interviewed the Deputy Head Academic, Mr Iain Smith, who gave us his take on why Oundle School takes such a standpoint.
Firstly, we all know that Oundle School is an academic school. There is but a tiny minority of pupils who are unable to cope with studying four subjects up until the Easter of the Lower Sixth. That is important to note and keep in mind whilst I present to you the arguments why doing four A levels for two full terms of the Lower Sixth Form is undoubtedly beneficial for academically able pupils – in other words, most Oundelians.
The first pillar of my argument, and something about which Mr Smith was very passionate, was diversity and breadth. Oundle School has a uniquely wide variety of subjects (around 30) on offer at A level, and it is in fact highly unusual for pupils coming into the Sixth Form to know for sure what they want to study, and indeed continue later in life. There is certainly an emphasis, in terms of the extension course, on education as a more general and abstract experience rather than a formulaic acquirement of grades; the School does not want to be an “exam factory”, but rather allows pursuits for academic interest and curiosity on top of A level studies. It is for this reason that participation in such a course is so fervently encouraged by the School, and that retaining the fourth subject up to the second term is compulsory. It allows you to have a fuller understanding of your courses, having learnt more about them, before you make the decision about which subjects to carry on to examination.
The School is also, in my view, correct to insist on the study of four subjects up to the end of the Easter Term, because it gives pupils an incentive to work hard in all their subjects for all this time. Just imagine a scenario: you study four subjects – let’s say English, Maths, French and History. At the start of the year, you are fairly sure that you want to drop Maths. There are two possible paths here now: the first of which is the way some other schools decide to operate, which lets people stop studying a subject after six weeks, or in some cases three. In this case, the pupil goes into the year without much enthusiasm for Maths, given they are sure they will drop it within a matter of weeks. They have no incentive or motivation to work hard, so they don’t, and of course, that means they don’t do well, don’t enjoy it, and hence drop it.
"The School is also, in my view, correct to insist on the study of four subjects up to the end of the Easter Term, because it gives pupils an incentive to work hard in all their subjects for all this time."Charlie Martin, Crosby
The other path, though, is Oundle’s path. The pupil knows he or she must study all four subjects for two terms, and so preconceptions are less likely to influence the pupil’s work ethic; it doesn’t seem so pointless to work hard in that subject in this scenario. By the middle of the second term, approaching preliminary predictions and a few essays or block tests down the line, the pupil realises they are actually quite good at Maths and wishes to drop another subject instead, at which they are not so strong. This is significant; as you can see, it could lead to different final subject choices, which in turn could lead to better examination results.
There are, as Mr Smith explains, many alternatives to A levels which other schools use. The International Baccalaureate, for example, would offer pupils more diversity but would force them to study more subjects, in less detail. The fact that we are able to specialise once we get to the Sixth Form is a good thing, as we look forward to tertiary education after our lives at Oundle. This is why the Oundelian way, enforcing the study of four subjects, and usually an extra extension course, is a happy medium between these two different educational philosophies.
From a more practical perspective, the investment in terms of staff numbers and staff time is significant to allow the offering of four A levels or Pre-Us for everybody. We are incredibly privileged to have such an opportunity as this, and we should make the most of it. This is one reason, as well as the others already listed, that Oundle requires that once you have picked your subjects, you continue all of them until the end of the second term of the Lower Sixth Form. It is as if we are keeping up our end of the bargain, with the School having invested plenty into giving us this opportunity.
Of course, we can make exceptions for those who really struggle with a fourth subject, and the School acknowledges this. It is important to have a system which is slightly flexible in exceptional cases, but which still pushes most people to perform to the best of their academic potential. In my eyes, this is what the current school policy enables.