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After seven exams, more required

What costs more than pound;380million a year, stresses thousands of teenagers, determines school league tables, and yet appears to be regarded as irrelevant by many universities?

Answer: the English public examination system.

It is mind-bogglingly ironic that we have the world's most examined school pupils, yet universities feel they need more information about their academic abilities before admitting them. You really couldn't make it up.

So to national tests at 7, 11, and 14, GCSEs and GNVQs at 16, AS exams at 17 and A2s at 18 must be added university admissions tests to help them discriminate between identically A* candidates.

Schools will do their best to help pupils. But it will be hard to justify coaching one for the Cambridge maths test and another for Oxford's. So the bright but poor, unable to afford tests or tuition, may be penalised once again for entrance to the best universities, despite protestations that little test preparation is necessary. At least some universities are developing a common exam.

Heads can see why potential medics and lawyers might need a specific admissions test. But, they say, admissions officers can get enough detail about exam marks to distinguish between the best students in most subjects.

How on earth did we get into this situation? Universities'

problems began when A-level marking changed so that candidates were awarded grades strictly on merit, rather than awarding only fixed proportions of As and Bs. Then botched A-Level reform added to everyone's woes by forcing new exams on 17-year-olds and allowing grade-improving retakes which made admissions officers' jobs even harder. The Government was brave enough to institute a proper enquiry into 14-19 exams - but bottled out of implementing the recommendations, which might have made sense of the current mess. How it will all work when vocational diplomas start in two years' time is anybody's guess, but secondary heads are fearing the worst.

Someone needs to be the grown-up here, and take a long cool look at this exam madness. Could education secretary Alan Johnson, a politician tipped for the very top, be the man for the job?

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