By the end of Year 11, I knew I wanted to do something in a STEM field but wasn’t sure what. I achieved A/B in my GCSEs so there was a lot of choice available. I went straight into my schools Sixth Form (now Academy..) mainly because it was so much more convenient staying in my home town rather than commuting via several buses into Swindon. I chose to do A-levels in maths, physics, computing and history. The idea with history was to balance myself out a bit and prove I wasn’t just a number crunching machine. I struggled quite a lot in Year 12 with outside distractions having a pretty negative impact on my grades, ending up with C/D at the end of it. History was definitely a bad choice, it has quite a lot of reading to do that piled up quick whilst trying to make time to practice maths / physics. One of the teachers style of teaching was comically awful too. In Year 13 I carried on with A2 computing and physics, whilst retaking AS maths. At then end of this I had a B in maths, C in computing and a D in physics. I’d already decided not far into the year that I was going to spend a third year at a college and not start the UCAS process.
For my third year of A-levels I went to New College Swindon. This was about a 25 minute drive from my house (the quickest way being east a junction on the M4). I retook physics and took A2 maths, general studies and AS electronics. Because New College only ran the AQA physics course I attended those lessons but was entered to retake the OCR board (Advancing Physics B). The courses are pretty similar in content but in my opinion the OCR exams are much more punishing and require a really good intuition and understanding of physics. The official endorsed textbook is an absolute disaster zone, with no worked examples and most of it is just waffle on the history of physics. Interesting stuff but no good for helping understanding! On each board you have to do a practical, the difference being that on OCR you have to design the entire thing from scratch, whilst on AQA my classmates just followed a lab-script and had to analyse the results. I do enjoy most of physics but I’ll admit some concepts I’ve never been able to totally nail (I only managed to bump my grade to a C). My maths teacher (and tutor) was David Stephenson and one of the best teachers I have ever had. He was in charge of Oxbridge submissions for the college and an absolute genius in maths, which helped me get a B grade at last. I opted to do AS electronics just because I was doing an extra year anyway, and it would hopefully be relevant on a degree course. The electronics teacher, Ned, is another great teacher with a sense of humour that made electronics pretty enjoyable (grade B). The general studies course consisted of about 4 hours of teaching before you took the exam, so I took it on a whim just to see how far I could get through bullshitting. Almost all of my revision process for that was reading the BBC News app on my phone. I achieved a B from that. My strategy in every general studies exam is just to start a multi page rant and throw in any argument even slightly related to the topic, and it seems that’s what they want!
Overall I don’t think Sixth Form was the best choice education wise, but I did have a lot of fun because everyone in the year had been together for years and we knew the school well. I think the problem was often teachers had to spread themselves too thinly over their classes and couldn’t devote enough time to properly engage A-level students. The resources available just couldn’t compare to New College and kids everywhere got annoying fast. The general feel was that you were still in Year 11 with having to sign in and out, not allowed to leave on free periods and teachers enforcing uniform rules to the letter. Apparently it’s got even worse since I left, with students actually being timetabled onto “study sessions” and monitored instead of free periods. If you can’t learn to adjust to your workload and complete assignments on time of your own accord then university will be a waste of time and money. Even with all that we had some great times and some unforgettable teachers (Ford). That was my A-level experience, which when you look at it is just a means to an end. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out their route through life!