Higher standards for top A-level grades backed

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The Independent Online

The head of a government inquiry into university admissions is backing plans to make it harder to obtain top grade A-level passes.

Professor Steven Schwartz, head of a task force advising ministers on admissions due to report this summer, yesterday threw his weight behind a move to replace existing A to E grade passes with a new seven-point grading system.

The issue is expected to form a key plank of his report when it is published later this summer.

The move would single out the brightest pupils for grade one passes - and avoid university admissions staff in universities having to choose between scores of candidates with three A grades at A-level.

The idea was first floated by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, in his inquiry report into 14 to 19 education earlier this week.

Professor Schwartz, who is vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said that universities often say "... that it is difficult to differentiate between students nowadays. Often students who have been accepted and rejected have got the same qualifications on paper.

"A six to seven point scale for A-levels would provide that finesse of differentiation that universities need." Under Mr Tomlinson's plans, a new four-tier diploma would replace existing A-levels and GCSEs. Advanced extension awards - described as world-class tests by Tony Blair, and sat at the same time as A-levels - would also be incorporated into the diploma.

At present, few pupils sit them because of the pressure of three consecutive years of external exams - GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels. However, if they were incorporated into the new diploma or A-levels, it would allow examiners to award grade one passes only to the brightest pupils.

Professor Schwartz added that he also backed the idea of grading the new diploma with a pass, merit or distinction grade.as another means of helping university admissions staff.

"We're facing a situation where universities develop their own examinations and the fear I've got is that you could have many different examinations. The chilling fact is people on low incomes may have to pay or travel to take them. If there is to be an exam for university entrance, maybe there should be just one exam, along the lines of the US Sats test (an aptitude test sat by all university applicants).

"You would give youngsters the examination while they were still in school so I would have thought it would have come under the Tomlinson remit. I fear we might have an escalation in the number of examinations if this issue is left alone."Already several leading universities - including Oxford and Cambridge - have announced plans to set their own admissions tests for law and medicine courses.

Professor Schwartz said he was also "disappointed" that the Tomlinson report had made no mention of moving towards a system whereby youngsters applied to university after they had received their A-level results - rather than being given provisional offers beforehand.

This, all parties are agreed, would avoid the mad scramble for places in late summer. However, universities and schools are at loggerheads over who should switch timetables to accommodate such a move.

"Everybody agrees it is a preferable system," he said. "It would have been helpful if the report had backed it."