Avalanche of top grades prompts calls for reform

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The Independent Online

The leader of the country's independent schools called for A-levels to be made harder yesterday as it emerged that nearly half of the pupils who sat the exam from private schools achieved A grades. Edward Gould, chairman of the Independent Schools Council - the umbrella body incorporating most independent schools, said this year's results would add to universities' concerns over selecting the brightest pupils for popular courses.

Figures published yesterday showed that 47.9 per cent of all candidates at ISC schools obtained an A-grade pass. The national figure in this year's exams was 24.1 per cent.

Mr Gould, a former chairman of the Headmasters' Conference - which represents top independent boys' schools - and head of Malvern College, demanded harder questions in A-levels in future.

"It is to be hoped that any proposals for further differentiation at the highest level will be linked to more challenging and demanding questions and not statistical slicing of the current assessment regime," he added.

Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, is known to favour harder questions as the answer to problems of A-levels. However, alternatives have included setting a special paper for the brightest pupils or introducing a new A* grade and insisting only a certain quota of around 5 per cent achieve it every year. This year's results show that Sevenoaks School in Kent has come out top for the first time. The school, with fees of up to £20, 199 a year, offers the International Baccalaureate - awarded a point score in line with A-levels for the first time ever by Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It has a point score per pupil of 587.9, which, in A-level terms, would be the equivalent of four grade As and a B for every pupil.

The results, issued a week after the publication of national results, show that two state schools - Colchester Royal Grammar School for Girls and Colyton in Devon (both selective schools) would have made a combined top 10 of the two sectors. Colyton would have come third.

The best-performing state comprehensive school, Hockerill Anglo-European school in Bishop's Stortford, Essex, which also offers the IB, would have come 12th.

Under the point-score system, an IB score of 35 out of 46 points is deemed the equivalent of four-and-a-half A grades at A-level. The exam is considered more demanding than A-levels as it insists on the study of six subjects, including a foreign language, maths and science as well as a 4,000-word essay project.

Meanwhile, the GCSE results of the Government's flagship academies - published yesterday by the Department for Education and Skills - showed the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A* to C grade passes had risen by 6.3 per cent (five times more than the national average). Seventeen of the 21 academies with pupils taking GCSEs posted improvements while all 21 achieved better results than the schools they replaced.

The schools minister, Lord Adonis, said: "The question now is not whether academies succeed but how many more are needed."

All academies met the Government's target of getting 25 per cent of pupils to obtain five top grades.