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Filling A-level vacuum

It is good to recognise that our exam system has failed, but university tests are no decent substitute, writes Paul Nightingale

At the height of the summer exam season we do well to bear in mind the prime purpose of our education system. From the moment children begin school, this elitist system punishes failure by ranking in order to exclude. Such elitism is based on the view that any qualification is only important and valuable when possessed by a small minority. Now it seems that proposed university tests are needed because A-levels have failed to identify the most able. There might be sympathy for students who have to endure far too many tests; but how else to choose from so many well-qualified applicants?

One should, however, resist the temptation to generalise here. Medicine is cited as an obvious case where admissions officers have an impossible task; and Ucas statistics for 2005 indicate that two-thirds of all successful candidates for medicine have 420-plus points (roughly, the equivalent of three As at A-level and a fourth A at AS, or better). Yet the 5,500 students in question are just 1.5 per cent of all students accepted for entry to all degree courses last year. It is hard to justify the widespread adoption of such tests, then, even if, for the sake of argument, we accept they might serve a purpose in that one subject area. Rather, this is a political matter, since the introduction of tests designed to exclude candidates will, effectively, confirm the high status of the university in question; as well as reconfirming the "natural" link with private schools.

None of this offers justification on educational grounds.

It is a powerful myth that too many students are passing too many exams.

Let us, rather, consider what actually does happen. GCSEs regulate entry, at 16-plus, to a range of advanced-level courses: and a little over half of all students, no more, gain the GCSE grades needed to even begin such courses.

Furthermore, of those successful GCSE students, only two-thirds are still in full-time education at 19, their perseverance being, of course, strongly related to parental background. Successful students have successful parents. None of this can be contested; indeed, a year ago, the Government's own white paper acknowledged that less than 4 per cent of the age cohort gain three grade As or better at A-level. That figure represents two things, a small minority of students and a system that rigorously differentiates between candidates without any need for university tests.

Several points can be made in the interests of clarity. First, any mention of wider participation has always been met by charges of "dumbing down"; but how do we know exams were sufficiently difficult when only a minority of students ever took them? If A-levels are an inadequate test now, this might well have been the case all along. Admissions tutors will use the proposed university tests to differentiate between well-qualified students; that they never had to do so before is hardly a criticism of A-levels as a mark of achievement.

Second, we should acknowledge that passing exams only proves that students have done what they were asked in the exam room. One can only infer that they have earned the opportunity to move on to the next stage, where they will have to go on learning to be successful. Discussion of university tests has highlighted their inherent unfairness: students from advantaged backgrounds will benefit from specialist coaching and succeed by default, just as they always have. It is difficult, then, to see why anyone would think the test more valid than anything that has gone before.

Thirdly, we might ask the purpose of education. Historically, A-levels have regulated entry to higher education and high-status occupations, which means they have now been exposed as an anachronism. Underpinning social and cultural reproduction, the system was effective when catering to a minority of students, precisely because it was only a minority. Yes, A-levels have been devalued as currency in the marketplace, but why should it matter if you now need better grades than would have been the case 20 years ago?

There is much about our education system that needs reform; by all means do away with A-levels because their cover has been blown (and we have woken up to the fact that we no longer live in the 1950s). But don't assume that university tests are an adequate solution.

Paul Nightingale teaches sociology at Mellow Lane school in Hillingdon

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