Calls for tougher marking after yet another A-grade bonanza

Record number of top grades awarded as pass rate rises for 27th year in succession
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The Independent Online

The class of 2009 last night celebrated the biggest rise in A grade passes for three years – and prompted the habitual calls for a review of the grading system.

A-level results published yesterday showed A-grade passes at a record 26.7 per cent, up 0.8 percentage points on last year. For the first time ever, too, more than three-quarters of the 330,000 candidates taking the exam got at least a C-grade pass.

Meanwhile, record numbers of students snapped up university places yesterday – with 371, 016 confirming places offered provisionally. This is 35,000 up on the same time last year.

The overall A-level pass rate also went up yesterday – by 0.3 per cent to 97.5 per cent.

The figures prompted the leader of one of the big three exam boards, Jerry Jarvis, managing director of Edexcel, to call for a renewed debate on the grading system to make it harder to obtain a top grade and improve the credibility of the exam.

"I think this is a debate that ought to be had," he said. "I think this is a great debate that we need to have to preserve its value."

Other changes that could be in the pipeline include giving universities the percentage marks scored by each pupil and the results of each of the four modules that make up an A-level exam.

University admissions staff have said that the rise in A-grade passes makes it almost impossible to select the brightest candidates for oversubscribed courses, particularly at the 20 universities that are members of the elite Russell Group, which includes Oxford and Cambridge. More than 50 per cent of the scripts submitted by independent school pupils were awarded an A grade.

Mr Jarvis said he expected moves such as giving out percentages would only be an adjunct to grades because "people have a good feel about what is meant by a grade".

However, he said exam boards would first have to look at the impact of introducing an A* grade for the first time for candidates next year before considering further. It was awarded this year to candidates taking the new extended essay as an extra to A-levels – with 11.7 per cent being awarded the A*.

His call for the grading system review was rejected by rival exam boards and headteachers yesterday.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: "Seeing the A* is to be introduced next year, it would be bizarre to make a second change."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families commented: "The A* will help them [admissions tutors] identify the brightest candidates in future – and the new exams will help students better demonstrate the full range of their skills."

He added: "Getting into university has always been a competitive process. Universities rightly decide their own admissions policies and can already ask for a student's actual marks as well as considering their grades, UCAS forms and teachers' reports."

Meanwhile, yesterday's results showed boys were narrowing the gap in performance between the sexes – limiting the gap to 2 per cent at A grade (25.6 per cent boys compared to 27.6 per cent girls), compared with a 2.3 per cent gap last year. Among overall results, the gap between boys and girls was 1 per cent, down slightly from 1.1 per cent last year.

Girls still outperformed boys in every subject, even in the traditionally male-dominated maths and physics.

Mike Cresswell, director general of the country's biggest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, said the rise in A-grade passes varied from region to region, with the North-East, traditionally the worst performing area, showing the biggest improvement. Dr Cresswell said this showed that "naive 'dumbing down' arguments do not hold water", adding: "If the exam had been 'dumbed down', you would have expected that to be constant through the country and types of schools."

He also pointed to the fact that the pass rate at AS-level – traditionally taken at the end of the first year of A-levels – was 86.9 per cent.

"What is happening is those that fail give up the subject – whereas previously they would have taken the full A-level and possibly failed.

"Today's A-level candidates, I think, worked harder than I ever did."

That, he argued, was why the overall pass rate had continued to rise.

The Conservatives argued that yesterday's figures showed more than one-third of A-levels were being sat in subjects considered insufficiently rigorous to be accepted by Britain's leading universities. Cambridge has published a list of those subjects which could jeopardise youngsters from winning a place.

Michael Gove, shadow Schools Secretary, called the gulf between private and state schools' results "truly shocking".

Tales of success - and disappointment

'10 As but no Oxford place'

Amelia Al-Qazzaz, 18, Teesside High School She was turned down by Oxford University despite yesterday picking up five A grades (in biology, chemistry, French, sport and PE, and further maths) to add to the five As she already had (in physics, maths, computing, business studies, and general studies). Amelia, who completed her GCSEs by the age of 14 and was the school's sports captain, will instead take physics at Imperial College, London. She said that Oxford had declined to offer her a place because she did not interview well: "I was obviously not what they were looking for." She was nevertheless pleased with her results this summer: "I am really happy, I put the work in and I was just hoping it was enough."

'DEE was still good enough'

Mohammed Haider, 19, Small Heath School, Birmingham Last year he got CDD. He resat his exams this year and got DEE in biology, chemistry and statistics, which meant he could not go to Aston University to study biochemistry. "I've been trying to get in through clearing all morning but I'm worried I won't get a place," he said early yesterday. "I've got three years experience in retail and I can't get a job there so I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't get a place." After hours on the phone he struck gold with a place on the mechanical engineering course at Birmingham City University. "I can't believe it!" he exclaimed. "I'm going to take it because I'd be stupid not to."

'Cambridge here I come'

George Weller, 18, Brighton College, East Sussex, and Kingsford Community School in Beckton, east London

The London teenager completed his journey from knife crime-ridden London suburb to Cambridge University. Having been awarded a place at Brighton College, one of the country's leading independent schools, he secured A grades in all four of his A-levels, and will read natural sciences at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. "It's hard to tell if I would have got into Cambridge without coming here, but I think I probably would have done because my GCSEs were quite good," said an overjoyed George. He added: "I have picked my university subject because I enjoy it."

'I missed out by a whisker'

Isabelle Bradley, 18, Chelmsford County School for Girls, Essex Needing grades of ABB to take up an offer to sit bioscience at the University of Sheffield, she fell a little short and got an A in Biology, C for Chemistry and a B in German. "I missed the entry criteria by one mark," Isabelle

said yesterday morning. Her mood changed from philosophical to delighted, however, after she triumphed by ringing around other universities. "I managed to secure a place, fairly quickly, through the clearing process," she smiled. "I am now going to study bioscience at Birmingham and will start in September. After university, I intend to pursue further education and possibly a masters degree."


The A-level pass rate at grade A – up by 0.8% from last year.