Marking the good pupil down

Universities are wrong to discount the evidence of A-levels, says Martin Stephen
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The Independent Online

As representatives of independent schools gather for their own conference season in the coming weeks an inevitable topic for discussion will be positive discrimination in university admissions, the issue which Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, dealt with as successfully as Lord Falconer has dealt with the Dome.

As representatives of independent schools gather for their own conference season in the coming weeks an inevitable topic for discussion will be positive discrimination in university admissions, the issue which Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, dealt with as successfully as Lord Falconer has dealt with the Dome.

It is arguable that higher education has far more to be concerned about in this debate than independent, or indeed any secondary, schools. The real issue goes far wider than the confines of independent education.

What has perhaps not been made clear enough in the recent debate is that it is not just independent schools that need to worry about some of the recent noises made by universities and their paymasters, but any parent and any child with a half-decent home and a supporting and effective school.

A-levels were brought in to provide a fair and objective measure of the level a pupil had reached in their path towards joining a university. If that objectivity is removed and primitive and subjective social engineering put in its place, whereby a middle-class pupil from a "good" school (maintained orindependent) is in effect weighed like a jockey and given a handicap, we put the clock back a hundred years.

Then a pupil's place at Oxford or Cambridge was a function of their social background and school, albeit at a different end of the social and economic spectrum. It is as wrong now to decide a young person's future on the basis of where they came from as it was then. The only answer is to have a "blind" admissions procedure based on truly objective criteria, whereby the university does not know the pupil's school or their socio-economic background, but simply how much they have learnt.

There are three problems with this. First, it challenges government to tackle the real problem at source. In a civilised society any child with the ability should be able to gain the qualifications their ability merits. If children are losing out because they cannot gain the A, B or even E grade they deserve, the answer is to change schools - and society - until they do. The answer is not to ask the universities to fiddle the books. If there is not enough corn being produced from the farm you should not blame the baker for the shortage of bread.

Second, blind entry only works if A-levels do provide a truly objective measurement of a pupil's standing in academic terms at any given time. In this area one or two houses need to put themselves in order. It is one of the most extraordinary features of our present examination system that the end-users of A-level - the universities - have almost no control over the content and marking of the examination. It is as if the medical profession were required to employ doctors who for five years had studied a course which no doctor had advised on.

This is a remarkable and largely unheralded change that has emerged in recent years. Originally, the examination boards were named after universities - the Oxford and Cambridge Board, London Board and so on - but they are now independent and autonomous, increasingly managed not by those with university experience but by people who have chosen examination administration as a career path in its own right, separated both from schools and universities.

If the top end of university administration is now divorced from universities, so is the other end, of those who actually mark the scripts. Not so long ago a large number of university lecturers marked A-level papers, both for pin money and because they wanted to do their bit. Nowadays, a university is judged on its research as are the individuals who work within it. One result is a dramatic decline, almost to extinction, of any university involvement in the marking of scripts. The analogy with medicine would be if the examination papers of final-year medics were marked by civil servants.

Third, there is a real problem with those who do the marking, who by-and-large are schoolteachers. Marking A-level and GCSE scripts has not been made an attractive prospect by the new administrators. The award of a £2,000 per year pay increase to experienced teachers, which may have been delayed but will happen, is likely to persuade large numbers of them to give up the slog of marking at a time when their mainframe teaching programme is making heavy demands on them. A real shortage of competent markers for public examinations would have the same effect on the educational system as the fuel blockade had on the economy.

Universities cannot be stopped from mounting a campaign of appeasement in order to keep the Government off their backs, but it would be far better for everyone (not least of all themselves) if they concentrated on the real issues: a blind entry system that put them above criticism and meant that entry went solely on objectively measured merit, and reinserting themselves back as an influence on their own qualifying examination.

The writer is High Master of Manchester Grammar School, a leading independent school for boys

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