Independent schools want A-star grades awarded at A-level

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The Independent Online

Private schools are urging ministers to reconsider introducing a new A-star grade at A- level. The idea, favoured initially by Downing Street, was dropped after widespread opposition by state and independent school headteachers.

But Geoff Lucas, the secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents leading boys' fee-paying schools such as Eton and Westminster, is now saying the move is needed to avoid "anarchy" in university admissions.

The HMC's change of heart was made after this year's record A-level pass rate, when 21.6 per cent gained an A grade and universities said the plethora of A grades made it difficult for them to select the brightest pupils.

"Until now, the HMC has resisted anything resembling an A-star grade at A-level," Mr Lucas said. "The objections remain: it could devalue the existing A grade, it could [increase] resitting, it could detract students from other worthwhile activities."

But he said the context for debate had changed. "If no solution to the problem of discrimination at the top is found, the A-level itself, and any concept of national standards, will be replaced by anarchy and incoherence as universities and employers go their own way," he said. "It is time to reopen the debate on the A-star at A-level."

An American-style Scholastic Aptitude Test is to be piloted among 50,000 A-level students next year to help to differentiate between candidates. And the former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson will rule on how to differentiate between the brightest candidates when his inquiry into secondary school exams ends next year.

This year's independent school GCSE league table has been topped by Eton College, with a point score of 80, the equivalent of ten A-star grades for each pupil who sat the exam.

A month ago, the school's headmaster, Tony Little, controversially dismissed the exam as being "like Boy Scouts wearing badges", saying it did not provide a broad and rigorous enough curriculum for some pupils. Eton reaffirmed its commitment to reviewing whether its brightest pupils could bypass the exam and move on to AS-levels at a younger age. The resulta are due in the autumn.

Mr Little said: "By cutting the number of GCSE exams and allowing pupils to take AS levels earlier, it would be possible to give pupils a broader and more demanding education."

While Eton has beaten all its independent school rivals, it still lags behind two state schools in an overall league table.

Thomas Telford, a specialist technology college in Telford, Shropshire, topped the list with a point score of 94, the equivalent of more than 11 A-star grades for each pupil. It is the second year the school has come top. One of the reasons for Thomas Telford's success is that all the 168 youngsters who sat the exam this summer took the GNVQ information and communications technology course, which is the equivalent of four GCSE passes. Sir Kevin Satchwell, the school's headteacher, said: "Taking it does have an amazing spin-off for other subjects - 98 per cent got A-star to C grade passes in English, 96 per cent in science and 94 per cent in maths."

Reading Grammar School also beat Eton with a point score of 80.8.