A* grades not enough to get into Cambridge

Up to 8,000 university hopefuls have been rejected by Cambridge this year despite being expected to get at least one A* grade in their A-level exams later this month.

The university is one of the few to have insisted that applicants should be in line for at least one A* grade this year – the first year of the new grade being introduced.

Its experience puts a serious question mark over whether the introduction of the new grade will be the panacea ministers had hoped for helping the country’s most selective universities choose the brightest candidates for their most popular courses.

Applications to Cambridge University this year still increased despite the tougher entry requirement – albeit by only 0.5 per cent compared with a national average of 11.9 per cent.

In all, around 15,000 would-be students – including 3,000 from overseas –applied for the 3,300 places on offer.

As a result, just over 8,000 home grown applicants – the vast majority of whom would have been expected to get an A* grade in their exams – were turned away.

The university is now raising the prospect that its minimum entry requirements may have to be increased yet again – to two A* grades – in the future.

“We would have to be sure about the reliability of the A* grade before we did that,” said Geoff Parks, the university’s senior admissions tutor, in an interview with The Independent.

“We would have to have clear evidence of its effectiveness so it would have to be in two or three years time before we could do it.”

Dr Parks said university admissions staff had had to rely on the AS level results of potential candidates to assess whether they were in line to obtain an A* grade.

“Lots of predictions of A* grade passes didn’t have the evidence to back them up,” he said. Some schools “bumped up” their candidates’ chances – in an attempt either to give them more chance of succeeding with their applications or spurring to work harder for their exams.

"In the end, we had to say to schools we’re going to have to ignore what you predict in favour of what we know,” Dr Parks added.

This is one of the key reasons why Cambridge University is opposing Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to revamp A-levels – which would include doing away with the end of first-year sixth-form examination.

“We still think you can get ‘deep thought’ into A-levels (which is what Mr Gove has said he wants) with an end of first year exam,” he said.

However, Dr Parks said the current system – where students sit of series of modules during their two-year course to make up their grades – was in need of reform.

“You can get to your last module knowing that you already have an A grade,” he said.

“As a result, talking an A-level is rather like Usain Bolt running a race - he’s gone so fast that in the last fifty yards he ends up waving to the crowd.

“There is evidence that some of our students were taking their foot off the gas in year 13 (when they complete their A-level course).

“It's absolutely the minority but there are some very able students who think they’ve got the job done.

“They run into a brick wall and when they get here they really struggle. They have to start upping their game again.”

Asked whether the never-ending rise in the A-level pass rate could be put down to the exam becoming easier or teachers and students becoming smarter, he replied: “It is different in its style of questions and format to years ago.

“It has had to be made more accessible to a wider range of students. It is no longer an exam for the elite to get to university.

“The questions now are more subjective – they are more accessible. There is not the same opportunity for creative expression.

“Also, the other change which I know the awarding bodies would be reluctant to admit is the ability to recruit examiners capable of marking certain types of questions.

“The more open-ended the questions, the more variability there is in the assessment. If you’ve got really difficult questions, you’ve got to have someone with great subject knowledge to assess the answers.”

This year’s exams saw for the first time a return to the more open ended questions which can better tease out a candidate’s intellectual ability.

However, the prospect of that helping university admissions staff weed out the brightest youngsters is nil until the UK moves towards what is called PQA (post-qualification application) where youngsters apply to university after they get their results rather than being awarded places on predicted outcomes.

“The chances of that happening in my lifetime are almost nil,” said Dr Parks.

“The universities say they cannot move back the start of their academic year.

“The international students want to start then and we can’t ask them to delay for another three months or they could go elsewhere.

“The schools say it will cut down the amount of time to study for the exams if they are brought forward.

“To achieve what you want, you would have to make changes right back to primary schooling to fit everything in.”

The upshot of this is that admissions tutor will be stuck with the present system for the foreseeable future.

The A* grade could help them select the brighter candidates so long as they still retain the end of first year sixth-form exam to help them assess how well youngsters will do in their final grades.

This year, Cambridge’s increase in applications was limited to 0.5 per cent compared to *** at Oxford, which eschewed using the A* grade to determine applications.

Cambridge makes the point there was some flexibility in its admissions system – some courses, for instance, asked for three A* grades, students taking double maths were exempt from it because they would have taken their first exam last year before the A* grade was introduced. In addition, in between 50 and 100 cases a year students are admitted on a lower offer because of their potential (they may have struggled in a disadvantaged school and got three A grades or have faced sickness or personal problems). Some youngsters were also admitted after sitting the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels.

The vast majority, though, had to show they were capable of getting an A* grade in at least one of their subjects.

Meanwhile, application figures showed a 12 per cent rise at Oxford – up from 15,277 to 17, 144. When overseas students are taken out of the equation, it means that around 12,500 UK youngsters competing for just 3,000 places.

Yesterday, the Universities minister David Willetts said that individuals with “good” grades were set to miss out despite an increase in the number of undergraduate places.

Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey fans rejoice, series five returns later this month
TV
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

English Teacher

£100 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Randstad Education are curren...

DT Technician

£65 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: DT Technician required to start...

Nursery Manager

£10 - £11 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: Nursery Manager We are loo...

Early Years Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Early Years supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor