Stars in their eyes: pressured times for the new A-level generation

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Next week sees the culmination of the first major reforms to A-levels since the much-debated Curriculum 2000 changes came to fruition eight years ago: A*s. Warwick Mansell takes an educated guess at who the winners and losers will be

Teachers, students, parents and university admissions departments will be on tenterhooks even more than normal this year, as A-level results day comes with an added twist: the introduction of a new grade.

The TES has been investigating the likely effect of the new A* grade on university admissions, how it has affected the way pupils have approached their A-level studies, and what achieving it will say about the qualities of those who do so.

But, in the first instance next week, all eyes will be on the results themselves: how many of the top grades will be awarded and, crucially, will the awarding process itself go smoothly?

To take the second question first, while there are dangers in predictions, the auspices for the award of A*s have been relatively good so far.

Back in 2002, the last time there was a major change in the structure of the A-level, a grading scandal contributed to the resignation of the education secretary, Estelle Morris, and led to the sacking of the chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Sir William Stubbs.

Back then, it appeared that a desire to avoid a sudden sharp improvement in A-level results prompted last-minute shifts of grade boundaries that led to some able pupils receiving U grades.

In January, this newspaper revealed how private school heads were so concerned that a repeat might be in the offing that they would sit in on crucial exam board grading meetings to try to prevent it happening.

Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - which represents leading private schools - had warned about a "sense of trepidation" about the new grade.

However, there have been few signs, as yet, that any fresh scandal is about to break. Mr Lucas now seems more relaxed. Asked about the reaction from heads now that courses have finished, he said: "I have been absolutely deafened by the lack of noise."

Teachers' unions also sat in on the meetings and there seem few reports of unhappiness. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which has asked heads of departments for their opinions on the new A-level papers, also reports little general unease.

The regulator, Ofqual, has also been trying to prepare public opinion, and teachers, for the likely outcome of grading decisions. In May, it published an analysis of how many A*s would have been awarded in 2009 if the grade had been available then.

Some 7 per cent of entries overall, or one in four of those which actually achieved an A grade last year, would have received an A* under the new arrangements, whereby candidates have to score at least 90 per cent on the tougher A2 papers to gain the top grade, it said. This suggests that the proportion of A*s will be around that figure this year, although the regulator pointed out that its sums did not take into account other major changes being introduced for 2010 awards, including cutting the number of papers in most subjects from six to four, and the alleged introduction of more stretching questions in A2 papers.

But sources close to the exam boards suggest that the public had better beware of an anomaly within the new system. Pupil X might find themselves with an A*, and pupil Y, an A, even though pupil Y had higher marks overall than pupil X.

The reason for this discrepancy would be that pupil X had higher marks in the A2 papers, while pupil Y had scored much better at AS. The new system is designed to stop candidates being able to get the top grade by accumulating marks on easier papers (so this is only a logical consequence, but there are still predictions that it might provoke some media alarm).

Both Mr Lucas and Sue Kirkham, education policy specialist at ASCL, believe the A* has probably encouraged A grade students to work harder. But they seem split on whether or not this has been entirely a good thing.

Mr Lucas said: "In our schools, anecdotally the A* has had the effect of spurring the very bright kids to achieve even more. In the past, they would get their As in the bag early, and then they knew they did not have to do much to come through in the end. So this would seem to be quite a positive change."

But Ms Kirkham said: "We are hearing that this is putting extra stress on our able, conscientious students who now know that everything rides on this result, especially with the competition for university places particularly intense this year.

"Some people will find it difficult to cope with that level of extra pressure."

In the early days of the new A-level courses, there were signs that university admissions tutors would treat the A* very cautiously.

In autumn 2008, the National Council for Educational Excellence, the committee of business leaders and educationists set up to advise Gordon Brown's government, recommended that the new grade should not be used in admissions until further information had been collected, after A*s had started being awarded, on how "predictable" they were.

Schools and colleges have to forecast their students' likely achievements at A-level when they apply to university. The council was worried that the new grade would be particularly difficult to forecast in its early years, and that students from poorer backgrounds might be disadvantaged.

This position appeared to be endorsed by Labour in February 2009, when it announced that it would be working with the university admissions service Ucas to investigate, in the first three years of A*s being awarded, whether the grade could be predicted accurately enough to be used in university admissions.

Behind the scenes, it was widely speculated that ministers were worried about the possible effect of the A* on their drive to broaden university access, with proportions of pupils gaining the top grade from private schools likely to increase.

However, the new grade is already widely used by admissions tutors. Ucas told The TES that, as of this spring, 13 universities were using the A* in their admissions systems for courses starting in 2010. Some 6,000 offers to candidates were known to feature at least one A* as a requirement at that time, it said.

Mr Lucas predicted it would be used by most top universities within two years.

Cambridge University alone has made about 2,800 offers featuring one A* this year, according to figures from its head of admissions, Geoff Parks. About 80 Cambridge applicants have been told they must achieve two A*s, while a select group of three would-be applicants have the daunting task of gaining three A*s next week.

Some universities are taking a less bold approach. Most prominent among them is Oxford, which does not feature the A* in its admissions. The earliest it could do so is 2012, although no decision on that year will be taken until the autumn. A spokesperson for the university said: "We have not used the A* in the first two years because we got a clear message from teachers that they could not predict who would get the grade."

Mike Nicholson, the university's director of undergraduate admissions, said the university would wait to see whether the candidates who achieved A*s were the same as those who did best in the specially designed admissions tests it now runs in most subjects.

With these tests being accurate in predicting future performance at the university, he said, a high correlation of their results with students' ability to gain an A* would give the university more confidence in using the grade.

Mr Nicholson also suggested that Oxford was waiting to see what extra qualities in a student the A* would reward.

He said: "Will you be getting an A* because you are basically regurgitating lots of information and are ticking all of the exam's boxes? Or will the new exam do what it is supposed to do: reward independent thinking and the capacity to think around the discipline? This is part of what we want to investigate." The introduction of more "stretching" questions alongside the new grade, along with the stipulation that it can only be achieved in the harder papers, is supposed to address exactly this sense of scepticism. But there is still some debate over whether the new A-levels will work in the way Mr Nicholson hopes.

In a letter to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, last month, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education warned that the A* "will have no value in discriminating between the very best mathematics candidates".

This, warned the letter, was because it would favour mathematicians who could accumulate marks by working carefully - without making any careless errors - instead of rewarding genuine problem-solving ability. This quality could only be measured on harder papers than maths A-level provides, said the letter. It suggested admissions tutors should avoid using the A* for this reason.

Cambridge's Geoff Parks said in response that avoiding careless mistakes was important. "As an engineer, I do put a high emphasis on getting things right," he told The TES.

For all the arguments about the new grade, the ASCL's Ms Kirkham said there were far bigger issues facing most A-level students this year, most notably the competition for university places, and financing their degrees. There has been a 12 per cent increase in applications this year, with predictions that 170,000 people could miss out on a place at an English university.

Ms Kirkham said: "The vast majority of students contemplating going to university this year will not have offers including an A*. But they may be worried that the new syllabuses have been introduced at a time of such competition for university places. They will feel uncertain because they cannot be entirely sure what their results are going to look like.

"That always happens when you get a new specification. But there will be added pressure on the young people this year because many will feel that if they do not get the grades they need for their offer, they will not get their place."

A-level change looks poised to continue for a while, with Mr Gove having put forward controversial proposals for a fresh round of reform which might see fewer A-levels offered as modular courses.

This, though, is a subject for the coming months. Next week there will be, as ever, intense arguments about this year's results, and their implications for students.

Next week: GCSEs


The growing number of pupils opting for maths and science at A-level is likely to be one of the stories of results day next week.

Maths numbers have risen for the past seven years. That trend is set to continue on Thursday, with the subject likely to be among the fastest growing.

Maths entries at AS rose by 22 per cent last year, while the numbers taking further maths soared by 47 per cent. The same year group have just finished their A-level courses. A survey of teachers by the independent curriculum development body Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) last autumn suggested that the increases at AS will be translated into rises of 10 per cent and 18 per cent respectively in the numbers completing full A-levels this summer.

In science, figures from AS from last year show a rise of 10 per cent in physics and biology and 8 per cent in chemistry. This suggests full A-level entries will again increase for the subjects this year. The figures are significant, with powerful lobby groups representing maths and science teaching having argued that the subjects are crucial for the nation's future prosperity. Among the reasons offered by MEI are the growing recognition of students that doing well in these subjects can improve their career prospects, and the success of a network supporting the teaching of further maths.

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