Just how super is the new A-level super grade?

This month sees the launch of the much-heralded A-level super grade, the A*. Or, at least, the first cohort of students who can receive it are starting their courses around now. In practice, we will have to wait two years to see the first of the new grades awarded in 2010.

With around a quarter of all students who sit the exam currently getting A grades, the A* is intended to sort out the educational men from the boys - though the expression may be somewhat inappropriate given it's females who walk off with most of the A-levels these days.

When the idea was first proposed, we were told one reason for its introduction was to assist the "top" universities with their selection. With so many As, how else could they ensure they had picked the real boff- jobs for their courses?

But now there seems to have been a degree of rethinking by some of these institutions. The 1994 Group, for instance, which includes Durham, Exeter and York among its 18 universities, have produced a report expressing doubt.

They say the new grade will create, "a dynamic that might make it more difficult for research-intensive universities to maintain a balanced intake between applicants from different backgrounds, such as those from private and state-funded schools and colleges."

Translate that into English, and you detect a real worry that the new grade could lead to more privately educated students gaining places at 1994 Group universities, at the expense of those in state sixth forms and colleges.

Oxford University has also sounded a note of caution, saying they will not initially make any conditional offers based on the A* grade. Instead, they will wait and see who gets the new grades.

This is understandable. Along with Cambridge, Oxford has made efforts in recent years to improve their ratio of state-to-private admissions, which has remained obstinately around the 50-50 level. It would be embarrassing if the intake of 2010 were to suddenly reverse what small gains have been made.

A spokeswoman for Oxford told the BBC that in adopting this policy, the university is "not looking to do any social engineering".

Surely, that's exactly what it is doing. And a good thing too, all of us in the state sector will echo.

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