Exam board backs new A* grade to identify brightest A-level pupils

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The Independent Online

The head of Britain's biggest exams board today backs the introduction of a new A* grade at A-level after years of opposition from examiners.

Mike Creswell, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), said that he believed it was "an idea whose time had come".

The plan has always been supported in Downing Street as a means of helping the country's elite universities cream off the brightest talent for popular courses now that so many candidates can present themselves for subjects such as law and medicine with at least three straight As at A-level.

Mr Creswell's change of heart comes as a further rise in the percentage of A grades awarded is expected when this year's results are announced on Thursday. And it removes one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the plan - the opposition of most of the exam world which believes it would give less credibility to B and C grades - and even to a regular A.

"I was concerned about the impact of an A* grade on a good grade A performance," Mr Creswell said. "However, I believe we do have to start thinking about providing assistance to universities for those highly popular courses which are oversubscribed. I would now be happy to begin a move towards an A* grade. It would be timely because we're now in the process of reviewing A-levels.

Mr Creswell was speaking as ministers launched a strong defence of examination standards, while stressing that tougher A-level questions would be introduced. The Department for Education and Skills said that achievement on these questions "might be recognised by an A*... to help higher education distinguish between our brightest". "Stretching questions will be trialed this year for introduction in 2008," said a spokeswoman.

Also on trial from this year will be a new extended essay, as recommended in the inquiry into exam reform by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson. The project would be completed by sixth-formers during the first summer or second autumn of their two-year A-level course. "By then they would have an idea of the topic they would want to tackle," Mr Creswell said. "They would then have from the Christmas of the second year to concentrate on their final A-level exams."

He hoped the "grumpy old men" of the education world would "stop moaning about standards this year". A rise in grades is followed every year by claims from, among others, the Institute of Directors and the former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead that the exam has become easier.

Last year a record 22.8 per cent of scripts were awarded an A. This year's result are expected to show a slight rise in the overall pass rate of 96.2 per cent. The rise in the past decade "only means one or two extra students in each subject in the average school improving their pass rate in the past 10 years", said Mr Creswell. "Surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility that schools have managed this."

Jim Knight, the schools minister, observed that it was still only 3.6 per cent of the A-level age cohort that were achieving three or more straight A grades.

"Out of the class of 30 that started secondary school aged 11, just one will go on and achieve the prized three As at A-level," he said. "There is a strange mindset in this country that suggests the worth of an A-level can only be measured by the numbers who fail to make the grade.

"More people get As than did so 20 years ago, but this is because 20 years ago there were quotas for the number of grades awarded at each level: 30 per cent of entries were doomed to fail."