Call for essay to grade A-level pupils

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The Independent Online

Sixth-form students would write dissertations to help the top universities to select the brightest youngsters in a proposed overhaul of A-levels.

Universities would be asked to set topics and mark the work, calling in and scrutinising any sixth-former's work when choosing candidates. The reform is being proposed by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector heading a government inquiry into education at 14 to 19.

In this year's A-levels, 21 per cent of candidates achieved an A grade. University admissions officers have said the steady increase in top-grade passes has made it impossible for them to select the brightest candidates. Universities offer course places conditional on candidates achieving certain A-level grades, expecting a proportion not to but, with a higher proportion of candidates more than making the grade, A-levels are becoming inadequate measures for allocating places.

Mr Tomlinson sees the universities' "ownership" of the new dissertation as crucial to its standing in higher education.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: "We welcome Mike Tomlinson's emphasis on the need to stretch the very brightest candidates and to provide enough information about students' performance ... so universities can continue to select and recruit the best candidates for their courses. Proposals for an extended student essay are certainly interesting."

The dissertation would form part of a baccalaureate-style diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels under Mr Tomlinson's proposals. It already forms part of the International Baccalaureate, used by some universities to decide on candidates.

Mr Tomlinson told The Independent yesterday the inquiry was considering "a challenging piece of work which would go across subject boundaries. "It would be a single piece of work taken at the age students take A-levels," he said. "I would like the universities involved in setting some of the topics and marking them," he said, giving credibility to this section of the diploma. "Universities could see the entire piece of work when students apply to them."

Mr Tomlinson's committee will also examine whether candidates' marks should be given out alongside their grades.

Universities are already considering new means to differentiate candidates. Oxford, Cambridge and University College London are introducing admissions tests to medical and biomedical courses this autumn - yet admissions officials deny returning to wholesale testing, dropped by Oxbridge in the 1990s.

Cambridge is developing skills tests for computer and Oriental Studies courses, and other universities may follow.

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