A-levels will not be made harder, exams watchdog says

Head of Ofqual maintains that 'consistency in standards' is her priority
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The head of the independent exams watchdog is rejecting calls to review the A-level grading system to make it harder to get top-grade passes.

Kathleen Tattersall, who chairs Ofqual, the body monitoring exam standards, said: "It is certainly not part of our plans at the moment. I am not enamoured of the idea."

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, she added: "What we're looking for is consistency in standards, not something which becomes tougher or, God forbid, easier."

The calls for a major revamp of A-levels have been led by Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of the Edexcel exam board, who said it was necessary to combat a public perception that "more discrimination" in awarding A-level passes was necessary.

However, Ms Tattersall said: "In a world where people of all ages will be seeking jobs or university places, you have to have consistency." She said an employer looking at the grades of two people – one who took the exam years ago and one who had just taken it – had to be sure they were of equal merit.

She said the introduction of the new A* grade next year, coupled with more open-ended questions to test pupils' thinking skills, would add more "stretch and challenge" to the exam. She added: "By introducing the new A* grade, we are giving universities what they have been asking for – a means of making it easier to choose between candidates."

Some universities have indicated they will not use the A* grade to choose between pupils, although Cambridge has said its standard offer from next year will be an A* grade and two As.

Other universities have backed a recommendation by the Government's new advisory board, the National Centre for Education Excellence, that the new grade should be given time to see whether it is delivering in sorting out the most talented students.

Ms Tattersall said she expected more universities would soon make use of the A* grade. The changes could also stop schools turning to alternatives such as the Pre-U – which is devised along traditional lines without coursework – because they feel the A-level no longer stretches their brightest pupils.

Ms Tattersall conceded that more work needed to be done in making schools, pupils and parents aware of the Government's new diplomas. A study published earlier this week said many teenagers either did not know about them or believed they were an easier alternative to A-levels.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls has indicated the diplomas could take over from A-levels as the natural route for teenagers to take at school or college.

There are about 12,000 students taking the two-year diplomas. A small proportion of students, 600, planned to complete their course in one year, but this summer's results showed only 200 of those had passed. The other 400 failed because they did not pass the functional skills elements, which include basic English and maths.

"There are all sorts of different facets to the diploma and it makes great demands of people," Ms Tattersall said. "We shouldn't be talking about students having failed if they haven't got one particular aspect of it."