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Failing to make the grade over the new A*

Some universities may now be backing it, but the higher A-level ranking is still at risk of being killed off

You have probably seen the television advertisements for the website I'm surprised they haven't entered the education market. There could be an A* site. Or, even,.con.

The confusion over the new A-level grade is not limited to students and teachers. At the heart of much government education policy lies fundamental tension and confusion between "standards" and widening "access" to higher education. The latest casualty of this clash of aspirations is set to be the A*.

The new grade was one of the few recommendations that survived the Government's cherry-picking of the Tomlinson report in 2004. It was intended to do two things: to be the icing on the cake of Labour's "stretch and challenge" agenda, plus giving universities a tool to differentiate the great from the good.

This Government's vacillation over Tomlinson almost scuppered the new grade. The vacuum created by prevarication was rapidly filled by some 60 admissions tests, created or commissioned by the most selective universities themselves for the most competitive courses.

Deluged by a tsunami of such tests, schools and colleges - not to mention students - are now in danger of rapidly going under. Yet there is a simple solution at hand. Embrace and promote the A* grade. Instead, the Government appears poised to shoot itself in both feet.

Universities had been recommended to wait at least three years before making offers based on the A*. This recommendation had come from Gordon Brown's National Council for Educational Excellence (though Educational Mediocrity would be a more fitting title in this context).

Thankfully, Cambridge University's announcement this week that it will expect most students to get at least one A* is a sign some universities are beginning to break rank.

But confusion still remains. Take, for example, the fact that Ucas, the university admissions body, still considers it necessary to undertake a study into the predictability of A* grades. Both the Government and Universities UK, which represents the leaders of academe, have accepted this, yet on two counts Ucas's exercise is unnecessary.

First, there is a very explicit arithmetical and non-judgmental hurdle that students must pass to get the grade: their score must be higher than 90 per cent, so in the A2 exam they will need at least 270 uniform mark scale (UMS) points from the 300 available. Predicting which students are likely to achieve this should be far easier than is the case with any other grade, even allowing for the fact that they will be sitting exams with new-style, more open-ended questions.

More than half of all A grades are awarded to students who get a score of 240-255 UMS points on the A2 (or 480-510 for the whole paper). Modelling by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority suggests only 6 per cent of all A level entries will be awarded an A*, and that the new grade will identify the top 25 per cent of A-grade students in each subject.

Second, the avowed reason for the Ucas study into grade predictability - that some students will be disadvantaged because their schools are incapable of recognising, or accurately predicting, such stellar performance - is bogus. Both the Government and the universities know that, from this summer, a safety net to deal with such eventualities will already be in place.

The adjustment period (or "trading up", as it is better known) will give students who achieve better grades than had been predicted the opportunity to get into a university which, on the basis of their predicted grades, was beyond their reach.

There is only one possible explanation for this latest attempt at government obfuscation in which, sadly, many universities now appear to be colluding. QCA modelling of how the A* would be awarded, based on the last two years' data, suggests that the lion's share of A* grades will go to students from high-performing schools and colleges, predominantly those in independent and grammar schools, and sixth form colleges.

By trying to delay the introduction of A* until 2013 - which is, coincidentally, the year in which A levels are to be reviewed - the Government clearly hopes to buy time to devise yet another cunning plan to widen participation. In doing so, it does not want to admit that it is putting at risk not only standards but also, arguably, the A-level itself.

A potential vacuum could exist in recognising achievements beyond the A-level A grade, and if alternative qualifications such as the international baccalaureate and Pre-U do not fill it, the continuing proliferation of universities' own admissions tests almost certainly will. Ultimately, at least for entry to higher education, A-levels could then become redundant.

But the doomsday for A-levels is unlikely. As Cambridge's decision shows, most universities, forced to choose between "standards" and widening "access", will plump for the former. Their future world rankings and standing depend on it. A recent Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference survey shows clearly that some Oxbridge colleges are already operating a "proxy" A* by demanding 90 per cent UMS scores in A2 - the nearest equivalent under current arrangements to the A* proper.

With the Government saying one thing and universities doing another, it is no wonder that schools, colleges and students are confused.

Even if the Government is not prepared to admit what its real motives are for playing down the A*, rather than promoting it, universities should come clean. At the very least, they owe it to those students to make clear and unambiguous statements, before September this year, about their policies on the A*.

Geoff Lucas, Secretary, Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

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