Five As brigade shown the door

Top A-levels are not enough to gain a Cambridge place, says admissions director Geoff Parks, while Chris Conway, below, says the university is turning away brilliant pupils from state schools

Achievement levels at A-level rose again in 2005. Figures published last week showed that 9.5 per cent of candidates gained three or more As, compared with 9 per cent in 2004, but one trend not immediately obvious from the statistics is the growing fashion for some students to take increasing numbers of A-levels.

Just a few years ago, it was comparatively rare for Cambridge applicants to be taking more than three subjects, excluding general studies and students taking maths and further maths. Since 2002, however, about 50 per cent of our applicants have been taking four academic A-levels, and a small but growing number are now taking five or six.

It is easy to see why this is the case. The Curriculum 2000 changes made it much easier for students to manage their workload by making modular assessment the norm (instead of a final exam covering two years' work) and by splitting the A-level into two parts - the AS-level, usually taken in Year 12, and the A2, usually taken in Y13. Although students at schools or colleges with limited resources may not have the option of taking additional exams, where students do have that choice there's no reason for them not to try an extra subject in Y12 and then stop at AS-level or continue to the full A-level.

There is, of course, great kudos attached to accumulating a string of A-levels, due to the general misconception that the more qualifications someone has, the cleverer they must be. It's a fallacy that, at times, has Cambridge admissions tutors tearing our hair out.

There's a real danger that bright students with three A-levels will be deterred from applying to us because they wrongly believe they'll be viewed less favourably than students with four or five A-levels. Second, there's a perception that students not offered places who go on to get five As must have fallen victim to an unfair admissions process.

The truth is that there is no advantage to having a string of A-levels; in fact, a student with three As can be a much better applicant than one with six As. We're not looking for students who are pretty good at a range of subjects - we're looking for students who are exceptionally good at the subject they want to study at university. Extra A-levels don't tell us anything extra about an applicant's potential for a specific degree.

What is more, having an A at A-level is no guarantee that a student is well-suited to studying that subject at Cambridge. That is why we use other means of assessing students' aptitude, such as subject-specific admissions tests for law and medicine, and by interviewing almost all applicants. It is also why we take other relevant factors into account, such as any obstacles the student has had to overcome. (The Cambridge Special Access Scheme enables teachers to detail such circumstances.) This issue has also arisen in the much-publicised debate about A-level reform which was sparked again last week by Sir Mike Tomlinson's recent comment that the current system is "killing scholarship" by valuing curricular knowledge over deeper understanding and critical thinking.

The Government has made welcome moves to address this issue by consulting universities and employers on improvements proposed in last February's 14 to 19 education and skills white paper, including the introduction of tougher A-level questions. These would be modelled on the advanced extension awards (AEAs), an existing exam that is more demanding than A-level. It asks students to think for themselves and apply their knowledge in less familiar contexts, and is generally seen as a good indicator of a student's genuine aptitude, rather than their ability to retain and regurgitate facts. For this reason, a good performance at AEA is much more likely to impress Cambridge admissions tutors than a long string of A-levels.

Unfortunately, not all schools and colleges currently offer students the chance to take AEAs. This is partly because, unlike A-levels, there is no extra funding to help students prepare for AEAs, so institutions on tight budgets can struggle to resource them. In addition, AEAs are graded "distinction", "merit" and "fail" - there is no "pass". Success rates can vary widely, so they tend to be viewed as educational enrichment, rather than a route to an additional qualification. The inclusion of AEA-style questions in a reformed A-level would therefore be much welcomed by many universities. However, these questions need to be compulsory. "Optional"

isn't an option if bright students who lack confidence are not to miss out on university places.

As Mike Tomlinson rightly suggested, however, there are other downsides to the current system, and further reasons why universities are not necessarily impressed by additional A-levels. It means students are spending all their time following exam syllabi - time that would be far better spent getting a deeper understanding of their three main subjects by reading outside the curriculum, or developing the ability to think originally, debate and argue and explore ideas without worrying about getting things "wrong".

Second, they are not gaining the essential life skills - team-working and effective communication, for instance - that are valued by employers and universities. These qualities can be easily acquired by part-time work and extra-curricular activities, yet are often overlooked by students caught up in the qualifications frenzy.

Of equal concern to us at Cambridge is the worrying lack of provision of A-levels in key subjects at some schools and colleges. Physics is perhaps the most notable example. Buckingham university research found that 10 per cent of schools no longer offer physics A-level, and 39.5 per cent of schools had five or fewer students taking the subject. Modern languages and chemistry are in similar crisis.

Unless this trend is reversed, vast numbers of students could find themselves ineligible for places on degree courses in many subjects of vital importance to the UK economy. Universities such as Cambridge have made enormous efforts to ensure that the brightest applicants are admitted, regardless of background, and to encourage applications from gifted students who, in the past, might have felt they would be disadvantaged. It would be a tragedy if inequalities in A-level provision were to undo all that work.

Geoff Parks is director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges. For information:

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