League tables favour 'school' A levels, colleges say

1st February 2013 at 00:00
New measure ranks 'facilitating subjects' for elite university entry

New A-level league table measures are failing to recognise the achievements of thousands of FE students who gain places at top universities, prompting concerns that college performance is being significantly underrated.

Performance measures published last week gave pride of place to a new calculation showing how many students in 2012 got three A levels at AAB grade or above in "facilitating subjects" (maths, English literature, biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography and languages), commonly seen as a route into Russell Group universities.

But some of the country's highest achieving colleges have found that the measure understates their success: just 25,000 students nationwide achieved this new measure despite 75,000 students winning places at Russell Group universities last year. This suggests that top grades in three facilitating subjects are not necessary for the majority of entrants.

The subjects were originally singled out as those that were considered most likely to lead to places at elite universities, although the Russell Group recommended only that students pick at least two of them.

At one college, Truro and Penwith, more than half the 255 students who progressed to elite universities last year fell outside the new performance measure. Of the 19 students this year with Oxbridge offers, only six would qualify.

At Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, where A-level results are better than at Eton, 338 students progressed to Russell Group universities but only 40 per cent qualified under the "facilitating subjects" measure.

Colleges say that by overlooking so many academic successes, the tables present a false picture of achievement in institutions that offer a wide range of qualifications. They also provide a perverse incentive not to offer academically rigorous subjects such as computer science, which the government is trying to encourage.

Truro and Penwith College principal David Walrond said the measure excluded subjects - such as computing and engineering - that are among the most difficult A levels, as calculated by the average GCSE profile needed to achieve a top grade.

Traditional academic subjects such as philosophy and economics are also excluded. "But it does look a lot like a list of the A levels offered in schools," Mr Walrond said.

Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, said: "If you're a parent and want your child to go to the best university, it's not an accurate indicator." She said the Department for Education already collected destination data that could offer a better picture of how likely students were to go to top universities. "We think the performance measures don't do what they should be doing. They should answer the simple question: where is the best school or college in my locality to meet my needs?"

Instead, the 17 different measures included in the tables were likely to make it harder for parents and students to make decisions, she said.

Colleges said the measures tended to penalise their performance in a number of ways. For example, the tables calculate the percentage of students who achieve three A levels, including vocational students who may not be taking A levels - marking colleges down if students do not "achieve something they were not trying to achieve", as one principal put it.

Another measure tests whether A-level students pass three exams but includes students who are only taking one A level. And if a student drops out of school after AS levels and enrols in college, their poor prior performance is attached to the college's figures in the tables.

Principals also object to the downgrading of the BTEC extended national diplomas in the student point scores, although it has maintained its position on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff.

Colleges called for a "value added" measure, examining how students progressed from their exam performance at 16, to be restored.

A DfE spokesman said: "We have been publishing more and more of the new data over the past two years. This is just one measure. This is about transparency - not attacking different subjects."

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