Has A* made the grade? Results still too close to call

1st October 2010 at 01:00
Analysis - This year's A-level reform was intended to distinguish the exceptional from the merely very able. But has it only entrenched the gap between state pupils and their independent sector peers? William Stewart reports

It has become so repetitive that even the tongue-in-cheek articles mocking the predictability of it all have acquired their own tired monotony.

No matter. As ever, summer news was scarce this year, and when it comes to A-levels there is still only one story. This year saw the pass rate rise for the 28th year in a row, with the proportion of A grades up for a 12th year.

But 2010 should have been different. More than three years ago ministers acknowledged that the constant rise in achievement was making it harder for the most able pupils to prove they had stretched themselves and for elite universities to select the cream of the crop.

Their solution - the new A* grade - was awarded to the first pupils this summer. Within days of its announcement in December 2006, there were predictions that it was bound to widen the gulf between the independent and state school grades, pushing top university places further out of the reach of the "bog standard" comprehensive pupil.

The predictions grew more concrete as this summer approached. In August, before results day, Sir Martin Harris, director of the Government's Office for Fair Access, said he expected the A* to be "disproportionately achieved" in independent and selective schools.

The grade "does increase the risk that the brightest disadvantaged young people may be squeezed out of the applicant pool for the most selective universities", he warned.

Research from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) appeared to bolster his fears, predicting that independent school pupils would secure a higher proportion of A* grades.

Official statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that 30 per cent of all A* grades in 2010 came from independent schools, with the remaining 70 per cent from state schools and colleges.

But there were far fewer independent school candidates, with the sector making up just 14 per cent of A-level entries.

Comprehensives matched private schools in absolute terms, also accounting for 30 per cent of A*s. But they made up a much larger 43 per cent of overall entries.

The comprehensiveindependent school grades comparison is coloured by the fact that most independents select to some extent, and many have highly selective admissions.

But even selective state grammars cannot match the independent sector for A*s. They have 19 per cent of the top grades, but are only just behind the independent sector in volume, accounting for 12 per cent of A-level entries.

So, as predicted, independent schools have achieved much more than their fair share of top grades. But then they always have done.

The real question is, did the A* widen the gap?

Last year 19 per cent of A grades went to state grammar schools and 31 per cent to comprehensives - virtually the same as this year. But independents only managed 27 per cent of A grades in 2009 and so have gained a greater share of this year's top grade.

So yes, the gap has widened, although not by a huge amount. Does that mean it will also help independent pupils tighten their grip on places in the most selective universities?

There are competing theories on what the effect will be, particularly in the long term. So far Cambridge has made more use of the A* than any other university and is under pressure to widen access to state school pupils.

So it is perhaps not surprising that Geoff Parks, the university's director of admissions, has predicted that the new grade will eventually level the playing field for standard comprehensive pupils competing with their independent school counterparts.

His analysis is based on the introduction this year of more open-ended questions designed to bring more "stretch and challenge" to A-levels - at the same time as the new grade.

Speaking before the results, Dr Parks told The TES that he thought independent schools could enjoy a short-term boost from the A* because the sector adapts more quickly to changes in exams.

But he predicted that for the best pupils, regardless of background, the grade and tougher questions would in the long term allow flair and natural ability to outweigh any benefits of private school teaching.

However, John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT and now visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, disagrees.

"The A* is going to become essential for Russell Group (of Britain's 20 top) universities," he said on results day. "They will use it to filter candidates, the interview process will go out of the window, and it will be to the advantage of independent school pupils."

Some might argue that getting rid of admissions interviews would benefit state school pupils, who can be less confident in such situations.

And Dr Parks' suggestion of a question requiring so much flair and intelligence that the extra coaching and know-how available in independent schools cannot help could also be open for debate.

In truth, it is still too early to tell the long-term impact of the new grade on university admissions as this year only a small number of institutions made any use of it.

Last month Dr Parks said the early indications were that the A* had made no difference to the balance of independent and state school pupils admitted by Cambridge.

Of those successful candidates he said the number of A*s scored was virtually equal between the sectors. Those from independent schools had an average of 2.6 A*s each and those from state schools 2.4 - a tiny gap that Dr Parks says can be explained by the greater prevalence of further maths A-levels in the independents.

It also means the vast majority of successful candidates easily cleared this year's standard Cambridge offer of A*AA, which is why Dr Parks says the new grade has yet to make any difference to who Cambridge admits.

But there is evidence that the A* is already changing the way pupils work and which universities they apply to.

According to Dr Parks the grade has made them "keep their foot on the gas". Teachers have told him that pupils with Cambridge offers had higher workrates towards the end of their A-level courses than those aiming for Oxford, which did not ask for A*s this year.

This year has also seen a sudden gap open between the rate of increase in applications to Oxbridge - a 0.5 per cent rise for Cambridge was dwarfed by a 12 per cent increase at Oxford.

Dr Parks believes this can be explained by the A* which, combined with Cambridge's decision to take detailed AS scores into account when making offers, may have discouraged anyone not absolutely confident of scoring top marks.

But Oxford fiercely rejects any suggestion that it has changed direction. In a statement the university said its decision not to use the A* grade this year "has not affected either the quantity or quality of applicants".

The situation may become clearer if Oxford decides to follow Cambridge and use the A* when it reviews its position for 2012 entries.

Geoff Lucas, HMC secretary, believes that most top universities will use the grade within two years. Cambridge, the pioneer, may also make much more use of the A* if it decides the grade accurately predicts pupils' potential at university.

And if the university does decide to up its standard offer to A*A*A or even a perfect three A*s, then the grade could start to make a real difference to the application process.

Offers made by Cambridge would start actively filtering out candidates again. This year the vast majority of students given the 2010 standard Cambridge offer achieved the required grades. But only 77 per cent achieved at least two A*s and only 52 per cent achieved three of the new top grades.

So a stiffer standard offer should allow Cambridge to give the chance of a place to a broader range of pupils, safe in the knowledge that a significant proportion would be unlikely to make the grades.

But for that to happen it has to be confident that the A* is reliable, and Dr Parks says he has "anecdotal evidence" that the top grade is inconsistent between subjects.

Even if these potential problems can be ironed out, debate remains over exactly what the grade measures. Robert Coe from Durham University believes the A* rewards an avoidance of careless mistakes rather than the flair suggested by Dr Parks (see box).

As the new grade becomes more widely used, these issues will grow in importance. But whatever the outcome, an underlying problem will not go away.

If results continue to rise, then the A* can only be a temporary solution and it will only be matter of time before the calls for an A** begin.

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