Michael Gove's decision to drop AS levels in their current form will "scupper" the government's own social mobility agenda, a leading academic at the University of Cambridge with responsibility for widening participation has told TES.
Richard Partington, who chairs Cambridge's Admissions Research Working Party, said the AS level had been key in dramatically reducing the number of "mistakes" the university makes in giving places to the wrong students, and raised fears that young people from poorer homes would now miss out.
He also cast doubt on reports that Cambridge is considering reintroducing a university-wide entrance exam. Bringing back the test would put up "another barrier" to applicants from groups who do not usually go on to higher education, Mr Partington said.
His comments build on a warning issued by Cambridge, in the wake of Mr Gove's announcement on AS levels, that work on fairer access would be damaged by the reforms. Last week the Russell Group, which represents leading universities including Cambridge and Oxford, also criticised the changes to A levels, saying that without AS grades it would be difficult for universities to identify the most talented students. The criticism is embarrassing for Mr Gove, who has said he wants the Russell Group to take "ownership" of A levels.
Without AS-level marks, Cambridge would have to rely more heavily on interviews, GCSE results and predicted grades, Mr Partington said. Ten per cent of the university's offers went to applicants whose GCSE results were at least two A* grades weaker than the average for those offered a place, but whose performance at AS level was outstanding, he added. Three-quarters of them were from state schools and colleges.
The academic, who is also chair of the university's Outreach Steering Group, said that increasing reliance on the interview, which has the potential to "reward social confidence", may put state school applicants at a disadvantage.
Since the introduction of Curriculum 2000, which brought in AS levels in their current form, the number of applicants to Cambridge per year has risen from about 10,000 to nearly 16,000. Last year, 63 per cent of students came from state school backgrounds - a 30-year high.
Mr Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, said that thanks to the AS-level marks the university now makes far fewer "mistakes" in admissions. "The students on our courses where you might think, 'They're not that good', are essentially vanishing," he said. He also expressed concern that state school applicants would miss out on the "massive confidence boost" resulting from good AS-level marks.
"Michael Gove is scuppering his own government's so-called social mobility agenda," Mr Partington said. "His one big idea is that progressive education has undermined the capacity of children from the wrong side of the tracks to progress and compete, but the structure we have now is enabling more children from non-traditional backgrounds to get in to Cambridge."
The University of Oxford, which relies more heavily on the results of subject-specific aptitude tests, said it shared some of Cambridge's concerns. "AS-level results can be an important chance to build students' confidence in their academic ability and potential," a spokeswoman said.
From 2015, A levels will take the form of end-of-course exams, and modules and repeated retakes will be scrapped. Existing AS levels will be retained as stand-alone courses but results will no longer count towards the full A level. Ministers say the move will free up teaching time and prepare students for the demands of higher education.
Universities UK, which represents the sector, said it thought the timetable for reform was too ambitious.
Given the chance
Applications to the University of Cambridge in 2011:
375 - applications from the lowest participation areas.
66 - acceptances from the lowest participation areas.
2,657 - applications from comprehensive schools.
605 - acceptances at comprehensive schools.