One of the questions I am most often asked is how home educated students can go to university, if they are not following a traditional curriculum. When the child concerned is young, I point out that a lot may change in the next ten or more years. If pushed further, I’ll explain that, if things are as they are now, a child in the UK can always choose to go to sixth form college when he or she is sixteen, or take public A-level exams after studying them by correspondence, or at home.
However, although this is true, it doesn’t have to be that straightforward. While schools want students to believe that the only route to higher education is through A-levels, this is far from the case. There are many home educated students in the UK who have gone to university without A-levels; in some cases they have no formal qualifications at all.
Home Education and University
In the US, some universities actively seek for ‘homeschooled’ students, aware that they are usually self-motivated and dedicated to their chosen subjects, in contrast to many schooled students who may go to university simply because they can’t think of any alternatives.
Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in the UK, although in general home educated students do well at university. Nevertheless, universities are often interested in well-rounded students who can demonstrate a passion for their chosen subject. Thus work experience, or evidence of extensive studying, or (in creative subjects) a good portfolio may be of value. When a teenager is not in school, there is far more time for deeper study or relevant experience than is possible for students at school or sixth-form college.
Another option is to choose a foundation degree. These are particularly suitable for those who are practical as well as academic, or who want to study for courses such as architecture or business. They do not have any entry requirements, and combine work experience with academic learning. In many cases, after achieving a foundation degree, a student can opt to do a further year’s study which leads to a standard honours degree. They can be done full-time or, in some cases, part-time.
Home Education and UCAS
Many degree courses at universities do require qualifications. Applications are made through the UCAS site, usually in the year before the student hopes to start studying at the university. UCAS has a system of ‘points’ which many universities follow, requiring either particular qualifications or a certain number of UCAS points. Typically, three A-levels would be accepted for many courses, but – depending on the course – specific ones may be required, and/or particular grades. Qualifications from other sources – eg from schools in other countries, or those such as BTEC, or Grade 8 music exams – may also be acceptable, depending on the course being studied.
You can find full details of how points are calculated on the ‘tariff’ page of the UCAS site.
Thus it is important for any home educated student considering further education to start looking, by the time he is about thirteen or fourteen, at what different universities may require for his chosen field. A student wanting to study medicine has little choice other than to take three A-levels, including biology and chemistry, although it may be possible to take a foundation degree in science instead. A student wanting to study art should be building up a portfolio of styles, and perhaps aiming to take at least a GCSE in Art. Each university and each course within that university may have different requirements.
The UCAS application does not just ask for qualifications; it also wants the student to describe their interests, their achievements, and why they are applying. The personal statement is probably the most important part, so students should make sure they spend time over this; preparing it in a word processor is best rather than typing it in directly, and it should be checked by a parent or other adult to ensure it includes relevant information without unnecessary padding.
A parent will not be able to provide a reference; if the student has done paid or voluntary work, or has studied for qualifications such as music or drama exams, there may be a teacher or employer who can provide an academic or character reference. A minister or youth group leader may be an other possibility, or – if correspondence courses have been taken – a tutor. It should ideally be someone who is aware of the student’s academic potential and work ethic, and also how well they are likely to interact with other students.
Home Education and the Open University
In some cases, home educated students enjoy not just the freedom and focus of home education, but being able to work at home, at their own pace, without the interaction of other students. Others may have found jobs at sixteen, but want to continue part-time studying. Others may want to study at home many years later, perhaps to help with job promotion or even to move to a different career.
The Open University can be ideal in circumstances such as these; it provides some excellent courses and is highly flexible, with no entry requirements at all. Moreover, some Open University courses, once passed, may themselves count towards the qualifications necessary for a traditional university application.
Is Further Education Important?
Although university can seem like a default option to many, the fees have risen sharply in recent years, and the number of unemployed graduates in their 20s has also increased. Older people are working for longer, and employers often want experience in preference to qualifications.
Some careers – medicine, law, teaching, etc – require degrees, but jobs at the end are not so hard to find. Students who feel a sense of vocation in academic fields such as these will almost certainly find a way to get to university, and perhaps some of the funding too.
However, if a career does not need a degree, then home educated students may be able to volunteer or do part-time work in their chosen field, which may well lead to a full-time job once they are the right age, and have sufficient experience. An 18-year-old with a full-time job, even if on minimum wage, will be a great deal better off financially by their mid-twenties than a graduate saddled with, potentially, £50,000 of debt and no guaranteed job.
More and more people are choosing to delay university entrance until they can support themselves financially, either doing part-time courses, or taking a sabbatical after saving the necessary fees. Note, too, that ‘mature’ students – those over the age of 25 – may have fewer entrance requirements than those of 18.