Exams and qualifications

The purpose of this article is to highlight what qualifications are available to under 18 year olds and methods of obtaining them, so that kids with Asperger syndrome (AS) and their parents are informed about alternative to taking GCSEs at a mainstream school.

This article is in need of an update.


Many kids with AS fit into the high intelligence category which tends to shape the attitudes of parents, teachers, and LEA officials into wanting them to do well academically and get lots of qualifications. As a result, their parents will often bash their heads against numerous brick walls and fight endless battles with schools and the LEA in order that the school provides for their kid's SEN. If their kid was of lower intelligence then the issue of getting good GCSE grades will probably be far less important, so the parents may decide to withdraw their kid from school because there is little point in keeping them there. A kid with AS may be willing to go to school even though they generally do not enjoy school or are regularly bullied. They might complain at home about various issues like PE lessons or teachers criticising their handwriting, but they will never consider playing truant unless things get really bad for them. This is because they want to take their GCSE exams and get good grades. They (and their parents) are probably unaware that if they want to take exams and get qualifications then alternatives exist to attending a mainstream school and taking GCSEs. For some people these alternatives are better choice than attending a mainstream school. It is also possible to study individual subjects outside of school hours whilst attending a mainstream school and take exams leading to a qualification.

A kid with AS should not be forced by their parents to attend school and get GCSEs, or go to university and get a degree simply because they are clever, and to do otherwise would be a waste of a good brain. One's intelligence is one thing, but whether they are happy attending the institution and fit in with the system is another. It is totally wrong to force a kid to go to school if they are bullied or treated badly by the staff, or attend university if they have difficulty surviving the teaching system and coursework deadlines. There are also people with AS who possess expert knowledge of a subject but have difficulty getting it down on paper. Unless they can overcome this problem then taking exams may not be a good idea in practice no matter what the school or educational psychologists say. What is most important is that a kid enjoys their education and feels as if they are achieving something worthwhile from it. They shouldn't have to struggle or suffer for the want of paper qualifications, study too many subjects they see no purpose studying, or attend an institution they do not enjoy attending. There is nothing in this world that can ever compensate for or counteract an unhappy childhood. If your kid wants to take exams and get qualifications then let them, otherwise don't worry too much about it.

A common mistake made by parents is thinking that kids get one opportunity to take their GCSEs and if they miss this chance then they have effectively screwed up their education and possibly their future. This is totally and utterly untrue. The reality is that it is possible to take exams and gain GCSEs and many other qualifications at any age. It is also possible to retake GCSEs and A Levels an unlimited amount of times in the attempt to gain a higher grade. Another concern made by many parents is that if their kid does not attend a mainstream school then they will not get a broad and balanced education as they will gravitate towards whatever interests them to the detriment of everything else. If your kid is educated outside the mainstream school system, they could choose to study fewer subjects to examination level than if they attended a mainstream school. This should be viewed more as focusing on what they want for their paper qualifications as opposed to their full education. It is important to remember that education and learning is supposed to be for life and not just confined to one's days at school, so your kid has the rest of their life to study other subjects and learn about other things.

GCSEs are not worthless qualifications but they are vastly overrated by much of society. Schools want kids to do well in their GCSEs for one reason alone - to increase the schools position in the league tables. There is no requirement to have any GCSEs to access higher education or gain employment, so if your 16 year old doesn't have a single GCSE then it is not the end of the world for them no matter what others say. This is nothing to do with GCSEs being dumbed down since the days of O Levels. It is because there are alternative qualifications available today that are superior to GCSEs. There is no advantage or purpose in getting 15 A* grades other than showing off. If your kid wants to take GCSEs then what matters the most is getting good grades in the subjects that interest them and they are good at as opposed to trying to gain GCSEs in as many subjects as possible. The old saying of quality is better than quantity holds true for qualifications and 5 GCSEs at A*, A, or B grade are worth more than 10 GCSEs at C, D, or E grade. GCSEs are available in a wide variety of subjects, many of which are not offered at mainstream schools. A list of available subjects can be found on the websites of exam boards. Your kid might be interested in taking exams in some of these subjects either in addition or as an alternative to the GCSEs offered at mainstream schools.

After 16

There is no legal requirement to have GCSEs to do A Levels and many colleges readily accept students aged 16 and above onto a few A Level courses without GCSEs in these subjects. Colleges usually expect applicants for certain A Level courses such as maths or history to have a GCSE in the subject, but will often accept applicants providing they can somehow demonstrate (usually via an interview) that they possess sufficient knowledge of the subject to start the A Level course. If your kid is rejected because of lack of a GCSE then try an alternative arrangement such as the part time evening course rather than the full time day course, or apply to another college. Most colleges also offer a variety of vocational courses which could well be better choices than conventional academic subjects even if your kid is academically able. Many universities will accept BTECs and City Guilds instead of A Levels. Investigate with universities what their entry requirements are before your kid commits themself to any particular courses. Information about course entry requirements can be found on university websites. Most (possibly all) universities require some evidence that the applicant is fluent in English. An English language GCSE is most commonly used but other recognised English language qualifications also exist. Check with the university about this and which qualifications will substitute and English language GCSE.

Now what are the alternative choices to mainstream school when it comes to getting qualifications?

1. Private / external candidates.

It is possible to take GCSEs, IGCSEs, AS Levels, and A Levels in many subjects at any age by studying at home, with a private tutor, or with a correspondence or distance learning course, then taking the exam at an exam centre. Your kid can take exams in subjects they are studying at school or subjects that are not offered by their school providing the exam board makes them available to private candidates. The reason a few subjects are not offered to private candidates is because the coursework element is too difficult to accomplish at home without special facilities. It is the responsibility of the student to find an exam centre and arrange the exams. This process can be quite tricky. Most exam centres are actually schools and colleges and lists of those that take private candidates can be found on the websites of exam boards, but there is no indication whether the exam centre offers the exams in the subject your kid wants. Quite often the exam centre will only offer exams for the courses the school or college teaches. If the exam is in a particularly unusual subject then it is best to contact the exam board to find out where offers the exam. Sometimes it can be more successful to approach the matter from the opposite direction by contacting local schools and colleges and asking if they take private candidates and which exam boards they use. If the exam centre happens to be the secondary school your kid attends then they can refuse to let them sit the exam! Another secondary school in the same LEA might let your kid sit the exam. Private candidates are responsible for providing their own textbooks and course materials and have to teach themself. It helps if they know someone knowledgeable of the subject who can help them if they have difficulties. Standard textbooks are available for most subjects but private candidates can use whatever material is available to them. There are also certain internet sites and discussion forums dedicated to particular GCSE and A Level subjects. A private tutor can be employed either on a regular or occasional basis to help out with any difficulties. Past exam papers and their marking schemes are available to download from the websites of exam boards. Most GCSEs and some A Levels have a coursework element so your kid must allow themselves plenty of time to complete the coursework before the deadline. The cost of taking exams as a private candidate are quite low. Exam boards typically charge about £30 per subject and the examining centre often adds an administration charge between £5 and £30 per subject.

2. Distance learning or correspondence courses.

Several organisations run distance learning courses offering GCSEs, A Levels, and vocational qualifications including subjects rarely offered by state schools and colleges. Distance learning courses are primarily intended for adults but most organisations will take under 16 year olds who either attend mainstream schools or are home educated. They are allegedly quite popular with home educated teenagers whose want GCSEs, but have parents who lack sufficient knowledge of the syllabus to teach them. Some distance learning organisations just supply the learning materials either by post or e-mail, but others also provide tutor support by telephone or e-mail as well. Usually students enter exams as private candidates and it is the responsibility of the student and not the distance learning organisation to arrange the exams. Many distance learning organisations will offer a list of all exam centres that take their students. Distance learning courses are an ideal way for kids with AS to gain qualifications as they can study at their own rate at home without the pressure associated with institutionalised education. Course fees for distance learning courses vary but typically will cost £200 to £300 for each subject or course.

3. State colleges.

Under 16 year olds will only be accepted at a state college as a full time student if they have the support of their LEA. Getting support from an LEA to attend college instead of school is difficult and usually only offered as part of SEN provision. If your kid is officially diagnosed with AS or statemented for SEN then it is worth enquiring with the LEA whether they are prepared to offer college instead of school. It is quite rare for a state college to allow an under 16 year old to study subjects during the day that are offered at school. They will usually allow only vocational courses as the facility for LEAs to let under 16 year olds attend college is officially intended for less academic kids. Most colleges offer evening classes in both academic and vocational subjects. They are intended for adults in employment but an increasing number of colleges are accepting under 16 year olds who either attend mainstream school or are home educated. The attitudes towards accepting under 16 year olds vary from college to college and course to course. Many colleges are more inclined to accept under 16 year olds wanting to take vocational courses in say IT or an arts subject, or a GCSE not offered by most school such as astronomy, as opposed to GCSEs offered by schools such as science or English. The level of SEN support during evening classes is invariable, although state colleges are usually knowledgeable about AS. All state colleges are registered exam centres and students take their exams there. The staff also help with the coursework. State colleges offer free education for full time students in the 16 to 19 age group, but under 16 year olds attending evening classes may be subject to tuition fees and costs vary from college to college. Some colleges will charge full fees and other colleges will offer a reduced rate to under 16 year olds.

4. Independent colleges.

A number of independent colleges and 'cram' colleges exist that offer a limited range of GCSEs, A Levels, or vocational subjects. Many colleges are willing to accept under 16 year olds who attend mainstream school or are officially home educated, although for concerned parents, staff may not be CRB checked. Courses often run in the evenings or at weekends as well as during weekdays. The attitude towards SEN can vary from college to college. Some welcome kids with AS, physical disabilities, or those who have left school due to bullying and are willing to provide for their special needs, whilst others may be less generous when it comes to the provision of SEN support. Most independent colleges are registered exam centres and students take their exams there. The staff also help with the coursework. Fees vary from college to college. Some charge a fee for the complete course whereas others charge on a lesson by lesson basis.

5. The Open University.

A range of degree courses are offered to over 16 year olds and some degrees do not require any previous qualifications beforehand. This is an ideal alternative to real universities for students with AS as they can study at their own pace at home without the pressures of tight deadlines or the stress of lecture halls. The Open University also offers a variety of short courses in many subjects that typically last 6 to 12 weeks, and foundation courses for degrees that can substitute A Levels and used to access degree level courses at any university. Check out the Open University website for more information on the courses they offer.

6. University distance learning courses.

An increasing number of universities are now offering distance learning courses in certain subjects including degrees. Check out the university website for courses offered and entry requirements.

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