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Ministers split on university entry

Plans unveiled this week at Westminster to reform the university admissions system have revealed splits between the Scottish lifelong learning minister and his English counterpart.

Bill Rammell, English higher education minister, wants all universities by 2012 to offer places to applicants only after their A-level and Highers results are known.

Nicol Stephen, Scottish lifelong learning minister, is understood to have echoed concerns felt by other sections of the Scottish education system that such a system may disadvantage Scottish leavers.

The Scottish Executive has reserved its position over potential moves to create a comprehensive post-qualification applications (PQA) system.

Under a PQA system, results would have to be delivered earlier to candidates to allow universities to process applications. This would mean Scottish pupils receiving Higher and Advanced Higher grades in the middle of the summer, when schools would be closed and many staff unable or unwilling to return to school to support those in need of guidance.

The majority of Scottish pupils are unlikely to be affected by the Westminster plans as some 75 per cent apply to higher education on the basis of their fifth-year results - making them PQA applicants.

A short-term knock-on effect of the interim moves, however, could be that as early as next summer the Scottish Qualifications Authority may have to deliver exam results to schools, colleges and Ucas, the clearing and admissions system, by the end of July, a week earlier than it currently does.

For the next few years the date that pupils receive their results through the post is unlikely to change, because there would be no teachers in the schools or colleges to give them advice and guidance on their next steps.

However, Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, warned: "As soon as students work out that the results are in schools a week earlier, there will be pressure to release them."

Advancing the time for the SQA to send its results to schools and Ucas is aimed at improving the efficiency of universities' admissions services and leaving fewer pupils in "clearing".

A spokesman for the SQA said that there was unlikely to be any change to the exam timetable for candidates and that only markers involved in subjects at the tail-end of the timetable might have their time curtailed.

He said time savings would have to be achieved in the period set aside for quality assurance of marking and processing the results.

"We will do what we are asked to deliver - we will find a way to do it," he said. "But clearly there are implications not just at our end but at the school end as well."

A spokesman for the executive said it agreed with the recommendations for change in 2008-09 but that "while we worked closely with the Department for Education and Science, we reserve our position on longer-term recommendations about the introduction of a system of PQAs.

"Ministers will, in due course, take account of the particular circumstances and requirements of Scottish education before considering any further changes."

English higher education ministers have been pushing for a move to a PQA system in the next six years, to address the problem of the 55 per cent of English and Welsh university applicants whose results differ from their predicted outcome. In contrast, 90 per cent of Scottish applicants'

predicted results are correct to within one grade.

Some 75 per cent of Scottish pupils applying to university from S6 already know their exam results because they sat their Highers in S5; a further 20 per cent receive conditional offers in S6 based on their predicted results, but have no problem fulfilling the conditions set.

A relatively small group - 5 per cent of Scottish applicants - pose more problems because they do not perform as predicted in their S6 exams. These are the pupils who need the support and guidance of school or college staff when they receive their results.

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