Sunday, August 20, 2006


One in ten A-level students achieved at least three grade As this summer, increasing pressure for reform of the examination. The record haul of almost 200,000 A grades prompted complaints from leading universities that they were increasingly unable to distinguish the brightest candidates.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats both called for an overhaul of A levels and there were growing demands for the introduction of an A* grade similar to that at GCSE. Nearly a quarter of the 800,000 A-level grades awarded yesterday were grade As, with the proportion of top grades rising by 1.3 percentage points to 24.1 per cent, one of the largest increases in 40 years.

The bunching effect among top grades was most pronounced for girls, who inched further head of boys. One in four girls (25.3 per cent) achieved at least one grade A, compared with 22.7 per cent of boys. Girls now outperform boys at grade A in every main A-level subject, apart from modern languages.

In subjects such as modern languages and further maths, between a third and half of all candidates got an A grade. Politicians and teachers' unions praised the pupils' results and hard work. But, with so many students gaining three or more A grades, Professor Malcolm Grant, Provost of University College London and chairman of the Russell Group of 19 leading universities, said that the most popular universities were increasingly relying on interviews and tests to find the most promising students. "It means that we can now regard A levels only as a starting point in measuring aptitude and achievement. We are then relying on other measures, such as interviews and aptitude tests for law and medicine," he said.

Andrew Halls, headmaster of Magdalen College School in Oxford, where one pupil, Julian Lopez-Portillo, achieved eight grade As, said: "It is statistically easy to get an A. You can't deny that and universities find it hard to discriminate between top pupils. It probably should not be possible to get eight As."

The Department for Education has ruled out any big changes to A levels until 2008, but said it was exploring the possibility of introducing an A* grade, together with more difficult exam questions, for pupils starting A levels that year. Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, has set himself against a return to grade quotas or norm referencing, in which a fixed proportion are awarded each grade. "We need an education system that is about merit, not quotas," he said.

The University of Cambridge backed the introduction of an A* grade that would be reserved for a fixed proportion. Geoff Parks, Cambridge's admissions tutor, said that he would welcome any steps that would help to differentiate between students with three grade As. "If the A* grade was norm-referenced for the top 7 per cent or a higher overall performance, that would also potentially help," he said.

David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, agreed that grade quotas would be helpful. "You could give A* grades to the top 10 per cent of students and you could allow universities to know the numerical grade that each student got. That would allow differentiation to occur using existing information," he said. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, called for reform and said that A levels did not stretch the brightest pupils. The National Union of Students called for an open debate. Ellie Russell, its vice-president, said: "Times have changed and the A-level system is in need of review." However, John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, urged the Government not to devalue A grades with an A*. "[This will] increase stress and anorexia among bright 17 and 18-year-olds," he said.

More here

No comments: