Aptitude tests for university entry to be piloted

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The Government is to back a national trial of the tests to help universities weed out the brightest youngsters, and select candidates with aptitude from deprived communities. The use of the scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) was recommended in a government inquiry into university admissions earlier this year.

The inquiry, headed by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University in west London, said the tests would pick out the brightest students from the plethora of pupils now obtaining three grade- A passes at A-level. This year, nearly a quarter of scripts were awarded an A-grade.

The tests will also allow admissions staff to identify the potential of youngsters from poor backgrounds.

Bill Rammell, Minister for higher education, said: "We need to help universities discriminate between the most able students."

The Government is to pump £1.6m into the trial - which will see 50,000 A-level candidates sit the tests in November, allowing them to show admissions tutors evidence of their ability rather than simply relying on predicted grades.

Admissions staff have acknowledged that using predicted grades to determine who they take on can favour independent schools, whose teachers are more adept at playing the system.

The trial will be carried out over five years by the National Foundation for Educational Research. All schools and colleges in England with A-level students will be invited to take part.

Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who has campaigned to widen access to top universities so they take in more students from poor backgrounds, welcomed the move. Sir Peter, the chairman of the Sutton Trust, which launched its own pilot using the tests two years ago, said it had shown the SATs "were measuring something different from A-levels". "It was able to identify potential among those students whose grades do not reflect their ability - particularly in below-average performing schools," he said.

Research in the US indicates use of the tests has increased the number of pupils from poor background getting into top universities such as Harvard - and then going on to get high-level degree passes.

Professor Schwartz said it would be preferable to introduce a national aptitude test rather than universities developing their own - to avoid youngsters having to sit a wide range of exams.

Some universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, have already introduced tests for popular courses such as law and medicine. The SAT, pioneered in the US, is the most widely-taken admissions test in the world - with more than 1.4 million students sitting it each year.

The study will track students through the SATs, their A-levels and show what level degree pass they gain.

The decision was backed by secondary school headteachers. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The admissions system is a minefield for schools and their students, and we welcome this move ... to add clarity to the system and reinforce equity."