Diploma alternative to A-levels is ruled out

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The Schools minister, Lord Adonis, insisted "A-levels are here to stay", sparking an outcry from almost the entire education world, which favours switching to a diploma.

More than 250,000 students will receive their A-level results today. The signs are that the pass rate will rise for the 23rd year running and that the number of A grades will also rise.

Those trends are likely to leave thousands of students disappointed in their search for a university place, despite securing excellent grades. Today's Independent is the only newspaper carrying full details of thousands of courses still available to them, and other pupils, in an official 112-page Ucas supplement.

As ministers came under pressure over claims that A-levels are becoming easier, Lord Adonis, formerly Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief adviser at Downing Street on education, indicated the Government had hardened its line against scrapping the "gold standard" of the A-level.

Previously, ministers were committed to reviewing their decision to reject a proposed new academic and vocational diploma, as recommended in an inquiry by the former chief schools inspector, Sir Mike Tomlinson.

But yesterday Lord Adonis insisted: "We've made it quite clear A-levels are here to stay. We are not in the business of talking about any other system." His comments will make it impossible to reverse the decision to reject the diploma without provoking accusations of a major U-turn.

Meanwhile, private school heads have been forced to admit that they were wrong to claim universities were biased against them in their admissions policies. Leaders of the independent schools had boycotted Bristol University two years ago, claiming that its admissions policies favoured state school pupils, accepting them on lower grades.

However, a study commissioned by the independent schools from the National Foundation for Educational Research tracked 20,000 applications in the past year and found no evidence of bias.

Almost the entire education world is opposed to the Government's stance on A-levels, with Ellie Johnson Searle, the chief executive of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, the umbrella body representing all exam boards, saying she believed the change was inevitable.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I think the Government is in danger of backing itself into a corner.

"If the Government is faced by a coalition of universities, business and head teachers all pretty much singing from the same hymn sheet, then I think the Government is going to have to revise its decision."

Critics of A-levels say it is now impossible for top universities to select the brightest candidates for their most popular courses.

Last year saw 22.4 per cent of all scripts awarded an A grade and today is expected to see that figure pushed further towards 23 per cent, with almost a quarter of all girls being awarded one. The overall pass rate is expected to nudge nearer 97 per cent from last year's record of just over 96 per cent.

In his speech in Canterbury yesterday, Lord Adonis defended rises in the A-level pass rate against criticism that the exam had been "dumbed down". He said a rise in teaching standards - with only 4 per cent of lessons now considered poor by inspectors compared to up to 30 per cent two decades ago - meant that "we should expect exam results to improve." However, he insisted: "We are not complacent."

Ministers were planning to make the exam harder with tougher questions to be asked in a new half-hour paper to be added to all existing subjects, he said. In addition, there would be tests of a new extended essay - designed to develop pupils' thinking skills.

As revealed in The Independent earlier this month, universities will also in future be given the grades pupils have achieved in each module of an A-level as well as the overall subject grade. This will enable youngsters to record up to 18 grade As - a figure at present only achieved by 6 per cent of the 22,000 who obtain three grade-A passes. The move will make it easier for universities to select the brightest candidates.

Five top grades but still no university place

Tom Astin, 18, pupil at Lancaster Royal Grammar School

Tom Astin is expected to collect five A grades this morning, but has been left without a place at any university.

Tom, 18, who hopes to study medicine, has achieved five A grades at AS-level in physics, chemistry, biology, history and general studies, but has had all his applications rejected without even getting an interview. The aspiring medic, who studied at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, was rejected by Oxford, Manchester, Sheffield and Hull-York Medical School.

"I have always wanted to do medicine," he said. "There really isn't any other career for me. The system just seems so unfair. I have got the grades they want but that still isn't good enough. The universities decide things about people and their futures without even meeting them and just by looking at their forms.

"I understand it is hard for universities to choose between people when so many are predicted to get straight As. But I think there should be a new A* grade so they can distinguish in a fair way."

Tom will now try to obtain a medical school place through clearing, although he accepts this will be very difficult.

But he is determined not to be forced to take a year off, in part because he wants to avoid paying top-up fees, which will be introduced next year. "But it's more than that," he said. "I am ready to leave home and go to university and I really want to do it this year."

If he is unable to start at medical school this autumn, Tom plans to take a biomedical degree, which he would hope to follow with a graduate medical conversion course. This would see him spend seven years training to become a doctor rather than the traditional five.

He said a classmate was in the same position.

Sarah Cassidy