Confusion and patchwork adoption of A-level reform

Universities and schools both appear unsure about the new sixth-form exam system. Wendy Berliner looks at their response
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The Independent Online

One of the long established aims of the A-level system has been to prepare suitable candidates for higher education. The standard of the exams is rigorous, the universities understand them and use the results to guide their choice of students. It has been like that for 50 years.

One of the long established aims of the A-level system has been to prepare suitable candidates for higher education. The standard of the exams is rigorous, the universities understand them and use the results to guide their choice of students. It has been like that for 50 years.

Enter the biggest reform ever of the system in what is seen as indecent haste, and the universities are left swaying in the breeze of change. How should they treat students holding the new qualifications when they present themselves on their UCAS forms later this year?

You can see their problem. Gone are the absolute certainties of A-level. The new A2s are supposed to be harder than the old A-level but the new AS-levels are easier. Alongside them are more new qualifications: vocational A-level (the Advanced Certificate of Education) and key skills certificates in number, communication and information technology.

Then there have been all the news stories about over-stressed sixth formers struggling to cope with huge work loads generated by the new AS exam. It doesn't inspire confidence. The changes in exam timetabling for the system recently announced by Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, will only confirm doubts about how the new system has been operating.

The changes affect the entire system: if the universities are unsure, it creates huge problems for the schools who need hard information from them on how they will treat the new qualifications. This confusion has led John Dunford, General Secretary of the Secondary Head Association, to appeal to the universities to clarify what their position is on AS-levels. Then teachers could advise students on exam choice with confidence from September.

What looks most likely to happen is that, in the first year at least, few universities will actually require four AS-levels as a condition of entry, with the exception of some medical schools. They will look at the AS results of candidates in combination with GCSE results, teachers' references, A2 predictions and the candidate's personal statement on the UCAS application form.

Durham University, for example, is not making offers of places based on AS-levels, but will look favourably on a good set of qualifications. Edinburgh University says it does not want to be bound by rigid grade schemes, but will look at each individual.

Why are the universities taking this line? The reasons are threefold. First, some universities argue that some schools lack the resources to offer a fourth AS-level and that to require all students to have four AS-levels as a condition of entry is unfair on students at those schools.

Second, the students might not have their AS results in time for when they are filling in their UCAS forms this autumn. The new system is modular and allows students to resit modules in which they have done less well. The first time they can resit the AS exams they took this summer is next January – too late for the UCAS form. The same problem will affect the vocational A-levels too.

The third problem is similar to the second. Some independent schools, and at least one leading state school, have decided to make the new system of A-levels behave more like the old one. Instead of getting their pupils to sit their AS-levels this year, they are entering them for the exams next year, along with their A2 exams.

This will mean these candidates will be more mature and probably capable of better results. How fair is this on everyone else? The leading state school following this path is The Oratory School in London. Euan Blair, Tony Blair's eldest son, is a pupil there.

A few universities are writing AS-level into their admission scripts. Oxford Brookes University, for example, one of the most successful of the new universities, has set its baseline offer at one A-level and two AS-levels. Warwick University, one of the most popular universities in the country, is telling candidates that it requires 21 units. This suggests a combination of AS and A2, as each level is worth three units.

Peter Dunn, spokesman for Warwick University, says the university welcomes the broadening of the sixth-form curriculum introduced by the revamped system: "We are trying to be positive. The schools are having to do AS-levels and, rather than make life even more difficult for them, we are trying to help so that we can make all this pain they have been going through worthwhile."

Some universities are taking a middle course. Birmingham University, for example, is taking account of AS-level grades in the offers it makes and might make a lower A-level offer than they would have done in the past if the candidate has done particularly well at AS-level.

Leicester University would not go quite so far. It would be encouraging to a student with excellent AS grades, but would not necessarily lower the A-level offer; it does not want to discourage applications from the best students who might be put off by lower offers.

The mixed reception to AS-levels from the universities is one thing; the reception to the key skills certificates is much more even. Only one university, Central Lancashire, is believed to have included it in its entry requirements. Other universities have said they will take it into account but it is not compulsory in the sixth form and many independent schools, for example, have not offered it; some state schools have preferred to run their own home-grown key skills courses.

The new system has also introduced a practical difficulty to universities. Many have experienced a drop in the numbers of students visiting open days – students have been too busy studying for AS-levels to come.