A-levels must be revamped, says head of exam board

A major review of the A-level grading system is necessary to maintain public confidence in the exam, the head of one of the country's biggest exam boards said yesterday.

Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of Edexcel, said there was a public perception that "more discrimination" in awarding A-level passes was necessary. "Any exam graded A to G where 40 per cent of candidates get A grades – as happens in some subjects such as maths – instinctively feels wrong," he stated.

He called on Ofqual, the Government's new independent exams watchdog, to treat A-level grading as "a serious issue that needs to be considered".

Mr Jarvis was speaking at a seminar organised by the Guild of Educators in London to discuss whether exam standards had been "dumbed down".

He said it was "time for decisive action", adding: "The public perception is too many people are getting over the hurdle. Public perception is that more discrimination is necessary."

Mr Jarvis was speaking as about 250,000 youngsters were taking their A-levels with academics forecasting that the number of A grades awarded – now about 25 per cent – would rise again. Universities have claimed the rise in the pass rate makes it impossible for them to select the brightest candidates for the most popular courses – such as law and medicine.

Oxford and Cambridge universities are having to turn away around 10,000 candidates a year who are forecast to obtain three A-grade passes.

The Government is introducing a new A* grade – to be awarded for the first time next year – in a bid to solve the problem. However, Mr Jarvis said – agreeing while that would help introduce more discrimination at the top end – it would not solve the problem of public perception.

"That would help discriminate at a handful of universities," he said. He added that "the perception of quality" was "at least as important" as the actual quality. "If A-level is the gold standard, how can it remain the gold standard if more and more students get one?" he said.

To counteract arguments of "dumbing down", though, he said in reference to explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes successful ascent of Mount Everest earlier this week: "We've just seen a pensioner go up it so have we 'dumbed down' Everest?"

He added: "Of 18-year-olds, only 3 per cent actually get three A grades yet there is a perception they're so easy that everybody gets one." On criticism that allowing youngsters to resit the exam to boost their grades, he said: "Only 47 per cent of people pass their driving test the first time. Should we bar the rest from driving?"

Mr Jarvis said he was not going to outline his solutions for any grading review but expressed sympathy for the view of one questioner who argued A-level examiners should follow the example of apprenticeships, where there was a simple pass/fail structure.

His comments come at a time when A-levels are facing growing competition, with a number of private schools and a handful in the state sector opting for the new Pre-Uni exam – modelled on the traditional A-level with more weight placed on the end of year exam – or the International Baccalaureate, widely accepted as offering a broader curriculum by universities.

Ministers have countered by saying A-level questions will be tougher next year and that schools can encourage candidates to do an extended essay project alongside their A-levels to test their thinking skills.

At the seminar, Peter Williams, the outgoing chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency – the higher education watchdogs – called for the creation of an Ofqual-style watchdog to oversee degree standards.

Dr Williams, who leaves his post in October and stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity, made his comments following a doubling in the number of first degree passes awarded in in the past decade and amid claims that lecturers were being urged to mark "leniently" to secure their universities a high ranking in league tables.

Meanwhile, Chris Woodhead, the former chief schools inspector, has denounced Ofsted, the education standards watchdog he used to be in charge of, as an "irrelevance" and "waste of public money".

In an interview with The Economist, Mr Woodhead said Ofsted had become "part of the problem" in that it now dealt more with data than feedback from actual inspections.