LUCY HODGES is right to stress the dangers of over-reliance on A grades at GCSE when candidates are being selected by universities ("Warning to boys: don't leave it too late," Education, 18 June). But as her phrase "stellar performance at GCSE" hints, the situation is even more serious: increasingly, universities are using A* grades to sift candidates.
There is no defined standard for this level of achievement: the number of A* grades awarded in any subject is determined statistically. According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Code of Practice for Awarding Bodies, the threshold A* is simply to be set as high above the A/B border as B is set below it.
The consequences of this are revealed in the 1997 statistics issued by the Joint Council for GCSE. Nationally, 3.6 per cent of candidates last summer were awarded A* across all subjects offered by all boards, but the variations between subjects and syllabuses are enormous.
Suppose a candidate last year had taken English, maths (MEI) and Nuffield chemistry GCSEs. Across all boards, 2.2 per cent A*s were awarded for English, 12.8 per cent for maths (MEI) and 24.4 per cent for Nuffield chemistry. For some syllabuses, the figures were much higher.
There are good reasons for these variations - but pupils, teachers and parents don't know what they are. And to a harassed admissions tutor, one A* looks exactly like another.
AS AN experienced secondary school teacher, and one who has taught in both boys' and girls' single-sex grammar schools, I am tempted to believe that if universities are serious about using GCSE grades to choose their future undergraduates, then this is just what is needed to spur boys to make greater efforts at that level.
Geoffrey Mills, head of Latymer School, sums it up succinctly: "Performance at GCSE is diligence related. Hence the superior performance of girls." What a wonderful opportunity for boys to finally prove themselves equal to their female counterparts.
LUCY HODGES' article assumes that we all know what the top universities are and what the top subjects are. In reality our "top" university is the Open University and its courses are not subject to the problems she and her sources worry about. Her concern seems to be with entry to a few elite institutions, and the subtext is that in future they will be filled with girls and conformist boys.
I write as an admissions tutor, as a father of a boy, as a one-time excluded and truanting pupil and as a lecturer on gender issues. From theseperspectives I can say that lifelong learning is possible and that it is never too late for boys, or the many girls and women who have been traditionally excluded from these institutions.
(Dr) Nic Groombridge
Senior Lecturer in Sociology, St Mary's University College, Middx
LUCY HODGES and I got our wires crossed last week. I said that colleagues at other universities had mentioned using GCSE grades and school references as their chief criteria for accepting students. Oxford colleges certainly don't; most of us want to see written work, perhaps to give short tests as well, and to carry out interviews so that we can see whether candidates seem likely to flourish if they come here.
I wish we had kept entrance examinations, because I think candidates from comprehensive schools have suffered from a change that was supposed to benefit them. But that's a lost battle. At all events, the local criteria for admission boil down to a candidate's potential to benefit from being here - and GCSE grades tell you rather little about that.
Warden, New College, Oxford
I APPLAUD Jon Marcus for raising questions in the midst of somewhat one- sided coverage on the privatisation of schools for profit in the United States ("Going private - the US experience," Education, 18 June).
The DfEE is talking to the American company Edison Project about running our Education Action Zones. The idea of a private company managing our "failing" schools for profit should cause much apprehension.
NASUWT has received reports from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers which cast doubt over Edison's self- proclaimed success.
NEA documents the Edison Project's beginnings as Whittle Communications, which introduced a television channel to schools and profited from advertisers selling to the captive audience. In monitoring today's 25 Edison schools, AFT has found "uneven quality and mixed results". Promotional material overstates the schools' success, class sizes are high, teachers are inexperienced, turnover is high and administrative staff cut.
Edison's "success" may partly be due to the use of the widely acclaimed Success for All reading programme. SFA, developed by John Hopkins University, is used in more than 500 US public schools. Edison has cut corners on SFA and public school standards are far more impressive.
The conclusion from those who are living the Edison experience is clear. For teacher unions, it is not a matter of protecting the status quo but of signalling a clear warning: Government, do your homework before entering into a dodgy deal.
Nigel de Gruchy
National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers
IT is for girls, too
GUNTHER KRESS ("The Future still belongs to boys", Education, 11 June) correctly identifies the gap between the traditional school approach and skills needed for the technologies of the next decade. IT training in many schools seems still to consist of little more than substituting the computer for the typewriter or the pen to do the same old tasks.
What is lacking is the vision of how the world changes when that computer is connected to a telecommunications network, and becomes a vehicle for talking to and sharing information with the rest of the world.
But in assuming that this future still belongs to boys, Kress overlooks the fact that women tend naturally to be better than men at communicating and collaborating. This is precisely what the brave new world of work is all about. All that is necessary is to change girls' perception of the computer as a tool for solitary activities. Show them how to use e- mail, participate in video-conferencing and collaborate over the Internet, and they suddenly clamour to use technology.
Department of Computer Science
Queen Mary & Westfield College,
YOUR FEATURE "Parents want selection not specialisation" (Education, 4 June) presents a misleading picture of specialist schools. It also inaccurately summarises the paper prepared by Professor Tony Edwards. This was not based on any original research on specialist schools but rather was a review of previously published papers on schools abroad such as American magnet schools and the pilot group of the 15 CTCs in the UK.
Tony Edwards offers no more than "grounds for caution" in relation to the issues of parental preferences, selection and effectiveness.
Regrettably, Professor Edwards chose not to contact either the Department for Education & Employment or the Technology Colleges Trust in writing his paper. Had he done so he would have learned that:
1. While specialist schools are popular with parents (with four out of five of the 300 schools being oversubscribed in 1997), they do not select on the basis of ability. Nearly all specialist schools admit students with a broad range of ability representative of their catchment areas.
2. While it is very early to judge the specialist schools initiative on the basis of academic achievement (the first schools were designated only in 1994 and only 100 schools have been operating for two years or more), initial outcomes are encouraging:
We seek to modernise comprehensive education, not be a threat to it. We share David Blunkett's view that sameness is the enemy not the friend of raising standards.
We hope that the success of specialist schools will, in time, convince even sceptics such as Professor Edwards of the value of diversity in comprehensive education. All our children deserve a first-rate education and specialist schools will help to achieve this by raising their own standards of achievement and by working with other schools in their area.
Sir Cyril Taylor
Chair, Technology Colleges Trust
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