The problem with A Levels
But how happy are the students about the options available to take them on their university journey? For Bree, leaving school was a golden opportunity to change his educational environment. As a former private school pupil, and experiencing severe dyslexia, he felt traditional A Levels were not the path for him, and he went on to study a B-Tech at college before taking up his place at the Arts University Bournemouth.
He says: “I think A Levels and B-Techs are a stepping stone if you want to study art at university…BUT…a lot of people on the university course I took struggled transitioning from the sixth-form style of learning to degree level, and many dropped out in their first year. The gap was noticeable when we were given an assignment such as ‘examine different uses of materials’ or if there was a focus on conceptual ideas, for example. I think there needs to be more communication in the education system between colleges and universities as to what your degree tutors will expect from you. Fine Art may seem like an ‘easy’ option but it’s a very academic subject. I think it’s really valuable to do a foundation course, as it encourages you to explore all sort of different areas, like photography, painting, illustration, before you go on to degree level.”
It would seem the government’s AS and A Level exam reforms which came into effect three years ago, have not yet closed the gap between colleges and universities, as Bree’s comments are also echoed by Jasmine who studied photography, graphic design and fine art at A Level, she also thinks A Levels do not prepare students for university.
Jasmine says: “At A Level, there’s a set structure you follow to get good grades in art subjects but all of that goes out the window at university and you are expected to know what you’re doing, without much guidance. It’s a bit of a guessing game, one that I lost in my first year of university as I was failed for my work. That came as a huge blow because I have always achieved good grades. I failed because I didn’t meet the requirements but I was unclear as to what they were. After I finally understood what my tutors were looking for, I did come out of second year with a high 2:1 though!”
Commenting on the process, Jasmine says having good A Level grades is important, but she emphasises other critical elements for gaining a university place: “When applying to study art at university, grades aren’t as important as your portfolio. Putting a portfolio together was hard because I had so much work, l had to condense it. I find interviews nerve racking too and you can’t get onto an art course at university without attending one. I went to a different interview at Manchester Metropolitan University and messed up as I was nervous, so I didn’t get offered a place. Thankfully my interview at York St John went a lot better as I had some practice and knew what to expect.”
Second to third year jump
On the other hand, Anna has had a different experience and says if she had the choice to go straight to degree level, without doing her three-year Art Diploma, she would’ve struggled. She says: “I found it surprisingly easy to achieve my place, even the preparation at college was simple enough; make a portfolio of your best work, take it to interviews and show them what's what! I managed to get a spot in all but one of my choices - I didn't get into Bournemouth because I totally bombed the group interview! But I got into Solent which was my first choice so that didn't matter to me.”
Anna says she is now experiencing a bigger jump from second to third year: “I'm quite nervous to start this year because it's a step up when it comes to responsibility and importance of how well we do. But I'm also excited about all the new course content.”
Anna also mentions the impact art tutors can have on overall grades. She says, “I found it a bit difficult to approach the tutors at college, because they were always dealing with the younger or less organised students, whereas at Solent I get to work with tutors who are always available to help and discuss.”
The influence of teaching style has also made its mark on Jasmine. She now considers herself to be an abstract artist, a moniker she says she never would have given herself if it were not for her tutors. She says: “I was urged away from doing traditional art at university because you just don’t get the same enthusiasm and grades from the tutors if you don’t do contemporary art. Since doing work that’s a bit ‘out there’ I feel my tutors have responded better to me and are more engaged with what I’m doing (and I’ve got better grades). I’m happy that I’ve been pushed out my comfort zone because I’ve found a way of working that excites me.”
When it comes down to applying skills acquired at university, it seems there’s an infinite number of paths to take. A rise in self-employment has opened doors for artists, while what used to be considered niche fields like tattooing, have become more sustainable career options. Bree continues to work as a freelancer, creating storyboards and illustrations, and he says he is drawing more now on the skills he learned at B-Tech. He says: “Subjects like illustration and graphic design generally lead to more solid and accessible careers.”
In contrast, Anna has designs on a career in tattooing. She says: “I would really love to set up an Etsy store to selling tops, bags and badges. I've started to work towards this now ahead of leaving university – which is very exciting!” And Jasmine’s dream is to be a freelance artist and generate her income purely from selling and exhibiting her work. She says: “I know I won’t be able to get there straight away, so I will be using my graphic design skills to work somewhere that needs designers while I build up my own practice.”
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