Why the A* grade will only reinforce a system based on privilege

17th April 2009 at 01:00

Admissions tutors at Cambridge University may think that the new A* grade at A-level will give them relief from the problems of choosing between pupils with three As.

But their demand that applicants get at least one A*, coupled with vice-chancellors' calls for unlimited top-up fees, brings closer a return to the Brideshead Revisited world of access limited to the richest, not the most able.

Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), gave the A* fulsome praise on these pages last month, but in doing so showed a myopic view of university applications.

The Cambridge decision has drawn sharp criticism. Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the Commons' education select committee, commented in horror that "some of our greatest universities are becoming no-go zones for children from normal backgrounds", while the Sutton Trust, dedicated to opening access to top universities, argued that this is "a new way for the privileged to assert their advantage".

They are right. The Cambridge decision is a major defeat for the Government, which has, however, created immense confusion by mishandling the A* issue.

Politicians introduced the A* 18 months ago with a fanfare as the keynote of its new "stretch and challenge" policy. They then got cold feet when the National Council for Educational Excellence reported in October last year that the new grade was "unpredictable".

This was supported by David Lammy, the universities minister, in February. He recommended suspending use of the grade for three years after its introduction in 2010. Geoff Lucas is certainly right to regard this as illogical, for there is no problem in predicting a grade boundary of 90 per cent. And there is no way admissions tutors would not use A* once it was fully operational.

This was underscored by Cambridge, which does not even seem interested in the alleged virtues of "stretch and challenge". It will use a crude mark boundary at 90 per cent, aiming to tackle "the problem of differentiating between the increasing numbers of candidates getting three As at A-level".

But this does not dispose of the underlying problem of grade inflation. There are too many A grades - 24 per cent per cent of candidates now get at least one, suggesting the heart of the problem is overproduction of A grades. Moreover, it is clear - as it has been from the moment A* was suggested - that this would be a qualification biased towards the public schools of the HMC, exacerbating the growing danger of the elite universities becoming the province of the rich.

It was the vice-chancellor of Cambridge herself, Professor Alison Richard, who warned of Cambridge becoming "a finishing school for the children of the well-to-do".

With other universities also adopting A*, reportedly, including Imperial and University College, London, the elite universities appear not to have considered the implications. If A* limits access to the 7 per cent of students in fee-paying schools, abandoning the pool of talent in the state sector, where 93 per cent of our students are educated, the universities themselves must suffer.

This is not, however, the immediate problem. This is that fixing a 90 per cent grade boundary with or without the alleged stretch-and-challenge trimmings threatens a new round of grade inflation.

Twenty years ago grade A was set at 70 per cent. Curriculum 2000 raised this to 80 per cent. Now the top grade is 90 per cent - but this is unlikely to hold for long.

There is growing pressure, driven by the public schools and private tutoring, to escalate marks still further till another grade boundary will be needed, perhaps an A** at 95 per cent. And, presumably, then an A*** at 97 per cent? Supporters of the new scale are unwise to think that the A-level will be secured.

The elite universities have a strong case against the current A-level system. Top grades are overproduced, a chaotic system of alternative exams has emerged, and the richest and the best-coached have the edge. But a 90 per cent mark boundary will only trigger more mark inflation.

In the short term, there is an alternative. The advanced extension award does everything the Russell Group universities want, without displaying any bias toward the private sector. It is one of many Kafkaesque aspects of the current situation that the Government plans to destroy it in favour of the A*, a decision that should be reversed immediately.

But in the longer term, an independent investigation of exam reform and university entrance is essential, and it cannot be postponed till a notional date of 2013. By then, on current trends, Brideshead will have returned.

Cambridge is unlikely to want to become the exclusive home of the well-coached children of the ultra rich, but informed commentators expect A* to benefit the public schools.

An independent inquiry is needed, and it is needed now. What Cambridge has done risks benefiting the richest public schools in the short term. This is not a rational way to run university entrance. The time for a fundamental inquiry into public examination and university admission systems has now arrived.

Trevor Fisher, Teacher at a Staffordshire sixth-form college.

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