Debate about elite is elitist itself

FORGET for a moment the obsession with elites, Oxford colleges and candidates with starred A grades, and think about the rest of their peers. By which I mean all those sixth-formers and college students who are just emerging from weeks in examination hall sweatshops - not to mention years of hard slog - and must now wait two months to see if they have a university place.

Straight As with stars are a fine thing, hard to attain, and deserve their due academic reward. And they usually get it in the end, in spite of tough competition, whichever side of the Atlantic the lucky university turns out to be. We shouldn't just be worrying, though, about comprehensive pupils like Laura Spence, Oxford and Cambridge, or even the somewhat arbitrary list of top universities whose admissions record has just been analysed by the Sutton Trust.

There are plenty of other good universities worth trying for, but the truth is that our entire academic admissions system presents a heartless lottery of an obstacle course to potential students, whether from state or independent schools. They may not all reach the peaks of excellence that political discourse demands, but A-levels are never easy. They will have to concentrate on their books while their mates are out clubbing, will probably achieve respectable results, and go on to a degree and a worthwhile career.

Just the sort of young people the country needs, and they deserve better than a system designed to suit the timetables of the universities and the exam boards, but certainly not of the students themselves.

It is self-evident that the only rational, fair and efficient way to match students with courses and universities is for A-level results to be available before both sides of the transaction have to make their choices, but so far the forces of conservatism have resisted even the most strenuous efforts to reform them. The timing of A-levels is apparntly immovable, and so is the university term (however brief).

The electronic revolution has still not sufficiently speeded up marking, the issue of results or the sorting of university places. So still the candidates have to sweat on the fate of their conditional offers, and wonder whether they gambled right on the offers they accepted, and the order in which they made their original choices. The university departments, of course, make their own gambles on numbers and funding.

Is it really impossible to design a more sensible system? The latest attempt may come next month with a report into the school year from a Local Government Association committee chaired by former Select Committee chairman Chris Price. The word is that it might recommend a four-term year, making it easier to move A-levels forward. But conservative forces will resist that solution too.

Peter Lampl and his Sutton Trust have an alternative suggestion, which is to bypass A-levels by introducing a version of the American Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which he claims will eliminate class bias. That is a claim disputed in the United States, where they are thought to favour white middle-class males, but there are in any case doubts on grounds of quality.

I was in the US at the time that the Conservative government was introducing testing over here with their own version of SATs, and all the thinking educationists we met were warning against them. One of the side-effects of this multiple-choice approach to university entrance was that no one learnt to write an essay at school, and reformers there wanted to introduce English-style written answers.

A-levels are probably still the best way to sort candidates for degree studies. It is the forces of academic conservatism which need to be sorted out. Now there's a good cause for the Prime Minister to take up.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES

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