A-levels are not for the elite alone

The launch of GCSEs 20 years ago hailed a new era when "all shall have prizes". The CSE lacked academic credibility and the GCE vocational flexibility. Merging the two, Sir Keith Joseph, then education secretary, announced that fail grades would be abolished and each grade would show a clear mark of achievement and ability.

Over subsequent years, the inevitable happened and any grade lower than C was tacitly accepted as a mark of failure. That dictated selection criteria for pupils hoping to stay on for A-levels.

There is danger of a similar drift with efforts to make A-levels tougher and more challenging for the brightest. Like the GCE and CSE, A-levels are past their sell-by date. Amid constant cries of dumbing down, university admissions tutors say they can no longer use the grades as entry criteria.

Rather than have radical reform, ministers have decided to tinker with the A-level. As we report on page 1, they can take some heart from the support teachers have shown for the inclusion of tougher optional questions. But what effect will this have on the general perception of lower grades?

Universities will always be institutions that select the elite. But they still have a responsibility to take anyone who will benefit from higher education and not just take the middle classes, for whom A-levels were created. Admissions tutors already have access to the actual marks rather than broad grades if they need to make finer judgment.

Without great care, A-levels will drift inexorably towards being a more elite exam, with the 14 to 19 diplomas coming in for the more practically minded also-rans. It would be ironic if a Labour government were responsible for creating the post-16 equivalent of the GCE and CSE.

On another related issue, the decision to retain some examined coursework is a victory for teachers. It is one area that helps pupils develop the wider key skills needed for university or work. The idea of killing it off was absurd. If it is open to cheating, the answer is less coursework better managed, even if it costs more.

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