Should the ICCE be accepted for university entrance?

What should universities do with applicants who hold the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE)? Yesterday’s guest post by an ICCE student has given me pause, but I’ve been aware that this is a complex question for some time. There are two things to bear in mind. First, the ICCE is sub-par (to put it mildly), and parents should be strongly discouraged from choosing it for their children. Second, there are a lot of students in the ICCE system who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. We do not want to make life any harder for them than it is already. How do we discourage parents and schools from putting children through the ICCE while minimising the harm to those who already have the certificate?

This blog has a lot of readers who hold ICCE certificates, and I hope they will all comment (Disqus should allow you to do so anonymously).

Is the ICCE suitable for university entrance?
Lecture theatre. Image: Science & Engineering, University of Hull. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The case for accepting ICCE students

After my 2014 post for the Guardian about how ICCE students were being taught that electricity can be generated from snow, I heard from several university staff members who wanted to discuss their institutions’ response to the ICCE. They were in some cases understandably unhappy at criticism they were receiving for having accepted ICCE students, which was regrettable. I didn’t want universities to take the blame for what was clearly the fault of a) the ICCE and b) UK NARIC. My article could have been clearer about that.

In this correspondence, Michael Merrifield, Head of School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham, made an excellent point:

I have thought a little more broadly about what universities should do about applicants who present with this qualification.  Presumably, most of the applicants did not take the qualification of their own volition, but ended up doing it because of their parents’ values.  If they were capable of studying at university, I would not want to disenfranchise them from higher education because of something over which they had little control.  In the case of physics, the decision is easy because we draw on a great deal of the A-level syllabus as a starting point for what we teach, and anyone who had learned that snowflakes generate electricity would struggle hopelessly in our first year, but one could imagine subjects that build largely from scratch at university being able to accommodate what are actually severely disadvantaged students, and give them the opportunity to undo some of the damage that has been done to them.

There is no doubt my writing about the ICCE has made it harder for ICCE students to get into university. Despite my campaigning, I don’t want universities to reject ICCE students out of hand. If I hadn’t done my degree, I don’t know that I would ever have escaped the mental cage my upbringing had built for me. I want ICCE students to have the opportunities that universities bring. They probably need those opportunities more than most.

The case for rejecting ICCE students

With the above in mind, the first draft of my recent journal article with Michael Reiss said “any student applying to higher education with an ICCE qualification is likely to have experienced a restricted school education; they therefore deserve to be given every opportunity to thrive in a richer educational environment.” But the anonymous peer reviewer for the journal pointed out that this has its problems:

This conclusion simply does not follow from such a devastating critique. Sadly, there are many poor schools, but HE [Higher Education] is not in the position to be able to take students who are not ready for what it can offer. It would be irresponsible for HE institutions to admit students who were likely to fail, and there is a need to have fairness between all those who apply for limited places in oversubscribed institutions. Of course, special courses might be offered by some other institutions to bring them up to scratch, or HE interviews and HE’s own testing might be introduced, but this is another discussion.

Both Michael Merrifield and Reviewer 1 raise good points. We want students who have been educationally disadvantaged to be given every opportunity to recover. It is not kind, however, to give a university place to a student who is only going to fail. When places are limited, it is unfair to favour ICCE students over those who are better prepared.

Our paper didn’t therefore include a clear argument about what universities should do. I believe that admissions teams are better placed than we are to decide what to do with ICCE applicants. Our article serves to give university admissions tutors information about the ICCE so they can make more informed decisions. The problem, as our paper demonstrates, is that the ICCE does not provide good evidence about students’ abilities or achievements. As a predictor of university performance, ICCE grades are unlikely to be useful. We therefore found ourselves with a rather on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand conclusion:

It is therefore appropriate for universities at the present time to recognise two things when faced with applications from students who have ICCE qualifications. First, students may perform well on the ICCE yet be poorly prepared for university entrance. Universities should therefore be sceptical about the value of ICCE as a university qualification. Secondly, and somewhat in contradistinction, any student applying to higher education with an ICCE qualification is likely to have experienced a restricted school education. It is therefore possible that such students may eventually perform better in a higher education institution, as a result of the teaching they receive, than might initially be thought. Such students will benefit from the opportunity to thrive in a richer educational environment.

So what should universities do?

As Reviewer 1 began to suggest, universities could (and some do) offer their own internal testing or interviews to assess the suitability of ICCE candidates for their chosen courses. Where this is possible, I am in favour of it. I recognise, though, that universities may not be in a position to perform in-depth assessments.

For many ICCE candidates, going to a college to do A Levels would be a better option. Some colleges will let you take Fast Track A Levels in one year, which is what I did. I know a year is a long delay, but they could benefit from time spent adjusting to the style of mainstream education (far different from what ICCE students have experienced). They then enter university better prepared and more likely to get the best from their course. Many of the ICCE “success stories” are in fact stories of those who studied for A Levels or the International Baccalaureate before applying to university. This has to be preferable to struggling through university or even dropping out. It also means they will be able to apply to a broader range of universities, since many do not accept the ICCE at all.

In many cases, a one-year Access to HE course can be appropriate preparation for university for people without recognised qualifications. Some universities offer a foundation year, which will bring you up to speed while also letting you go to university straight away. Michael Merrifield’s advice is to contact the university admissions tutors in the subject that you want to pursue, ask what they accept, and what they would recommend.

The sad truth is that ICCE students simply should not be in this position in the first place. Students in England and Wales can study for a vast array of accredited qualifications. It should be a legal requirement that all schools and home schooling families prepare and enter their children for these courses. Sending children to schools where they will leave without having even attempted to gain a formally recognised qualification is educational neglect.

Related posts around the web:

The Interview: Homeschool student meets university professor

Jeremiah Tan, an ICCE student (and wildly enthusiastic ACE advocate) from Singapore, describes how he got into university at interview. While I disagree with virtually everything he says, Jeremiah is obviously bright and I’m happy he got into university. He has also posted online his ICCE essays and the feedback he got, which could be useful for anyone seeking to evaluate the ICCE. In particular, I find the supervisor’s remarks on his essay “A Study of Clothing Styles and Fashion from 1916 to the Present” revealing. Tan argues that changes in fashion reflect moral degeneration over the past century. The marker’s comment reads:

The concluding remarks on how dressing has affected society and how as believers we need to realize this sinister trend is both scripturally substantiated and ecclesiastically helpful for another church or individual who wants to use these as a basis for understanding clothing and its societal impact and how Christians need to respond biblically , to the glory of GOD. Excellent research paper!!
I think the contrast in style between this and what one would typically expect in mainstream education is clear.
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