In all subjects the new grade will increase the stress on students. They are already aware that it is easier to achieve high grades in some subjects than in others and are prepared to shop around for the easier options (witness the 10,000-plus fewer students taking A2 mathematics following the disastrous AS results last summer).
The introduction of the A* will result in ambitious students seeking out subjects where they think the field in which they will be competing is weaker. This is very bad news for subjects like maths and physics.
How will the top 5 per cent be worked out? Will it be done on a unit-by-unit basis, or be based on the total marks achieved by a candidate at certification? Either way, candidates aiming for A* are likely to choose optional units in which they believe it is easier to score highly relative to other candidates.
This will result in a damaging distortion of students' choices within a subject, as well as between subjects. Another significant negative effect is likely to be more re-sitting of units. The best students will re-sit standard units which they have already passed well, just to try to squeeze a few extra marks towards an A*. Their time would be far better spent on more challenging and enriching material.
Gifted maths students may waste time trying to increase their mark on standard material from 80 to 90 per cent, rather than studying further maths, a subject designed partly to help meet the very students at which the A* is aimed and which would be of great use to them on any degree course which makes significant use of maths.
Will the new grade even be effective at distinguishing the best students? In subjects like mathematics, which have a relatively high A grade threshold, those eligible for the proposed award (the top 5 per cent in terms of exam scores) will not necessarily include those with the most flair for the subject. The grade is likely to reward attention to detail as much as natural ability.
The purpose of the new A* seems to be to help differentiate between the ever-increasing numbers of students who achieve A grades. For the reasons discussed above, the negative effects of its introduction would more than outweigh any benefit. The ASA2 system certainly needs reform, especially in mathematics, but this change is one that can only make things worse.
Charlie Stripp Chairman of the post-16 subcommittee The Mathematical Association 259 London Road Leicester