Pupils at independent schools are three times more likely to gain the A* grade as those in comprehensive schools, yesterday's A-level results revealed. The finding prompted the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, to warn that the school system was "one of the most segregated in the world".
The new grade, introduced this year, was awarded for 8.1 per cent of scripts, stirring memories of the 1960s, when 8.5 per cent were given an A grade. As one education expert put it: "A* is the new A grade."
Teachers' leaders warned that the new grade would hamper state school pupils' chances of getting into Britain's top universities. The figures showed that 17.9 per cent of all independent school entries were awarded an A*, compared with just 5.8 per cent of entries from comprehensive schools. In state grammar schools, 12.5 per cent of entries were given an A* grade.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, described the A* grade as "a belt and braces filter for the Russell Group [the group representing 20 of the country's leading higher education research institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge] to select their candidates.
"All this is going to achieve is independent pupils succeeding in getting places against state school pupils – and that's something of massive concern."
Education experts have said independent schools are stealing a march by offering more coaching for the A* grade. Mr Gibb said the Government was anxious to improve social mobility by adopting policies like the "pupil premium" – giving schools more cash to take in disadvantaged pupils.
Overall, this year's A-levels saw an overall 0.3 percentage point rise in the percentage of A grades awarded – from 26.7 per cent to 27 per cent. The overall pass rate rose by 0.1 percentage points to 97.6 per cent. It is the 28th year in succession that the figure has risen.
Boys have narrowed the gap between them and girls this year from 2 percentage points to 1.8 percentage points at A grade and from 1.1 to 0.9 in the overall pass rate.
Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, had said this would be a result of reforms which had introduced more open-ended questions designed to tease out critical thinking skills. Girls still outscored boys in the top grade, 8.3 per cent gaining an A*, compared to 7.9 per cent of boys.
This year's results saw a further decline in the take-up of modern foreign languages – with a further 3.76 percentage point drop in the take-up of German to 5,548 and a 3.37 percentage point drop in French to 13, 850.
Mr Bangs described the drop, which began when the previous government scrapped languages as a compulsory subject for 14- to 16-year-olds six years ago, as "a real, real concern".
He also criticised the Coalition Government for dropping the requirement for children to start learning a language from the age of seven, which was due to take effect from 2011. It was part of legislation which failed to make the statute book at the tail end of the last parliament. The policy is "in limbo".
The results showed a north/south divide in the pass rate with the largest percentage of A* grades being awarded in the South-east (23 per cent of scripts) and London (17 per cent). Only three per cent of scripts in the North-east were awarded A* grades.
Subjects considered essential to the country's economic success – maths, technology, physics, biology and chemistry – were among the top 10 in which the number of students taking A-levels rose this year.
Three A* grades, three A grades, still no place
Ben Scheffer, Brighton
Despite receiving three A* grades and three As, Ben Scheffer has not had a single offer from a university.
The 18-year-old applied to study economics at Oxford, the London School of Economics, University College London, Bristol and Warwick but all five turned him down. He is one of more than 3,000 young people with at least three As who are expected to be turned away this summer.
Ben believes his problem might have been aggravated by the fact he did not take GCSEs – he was at a school in Germany before taking A-levels at the independent Brighton College in East Sussex. He said of his results: "I'm really happy with them but I would be happier if I had got into university."
The only evidence admissions staff had of his academic prowess was his performance at AS-level at the end of his first sixth-form year. [Universities] should put more value on AS levels," he said. "It would also be better if we got results earlier and applied after getting them.
"I didn't write the best personal statement, to be fair, and economics is a hard course to get into. I really want to go to a good uni here. I don't want to go to a German university."
Ben, who obtained A*s in maths, economics and physics and As in further maths, chemistry and German, plans to take a gap year before applying to university again next year.
Twin success for precocious nine-year-olds
Peter and Paula Imafidon, London
Nine-year-old twins have achieved A grades in advanced A-level maths.
But after getting his results, Peter voiced his disappointment at not getting an A* grade.
He said: "I scored full marks during the practice exams and should have scored the same during the exams. I guess it's the last few questions which let me down."
His sister, meanwhile, claimed her achievement as a feminist victory of sorts: "I am very happy with the grade because I thought my calculator was broken at the beginning of the paper. I managed to use my head until it started working again. This shows that boys are not better than girls."
The state school-educated "wonder twins", from east London, became the youngest twins to pass maths GCSE exams aged six. Rosa Silverman
Medical school beckons for pupil with five stars
Zoe Chan, Northumberland
One of the country's top students chalked up five A*s and is off to read medicine at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. "I'm shocked by the results," said Zoe Chan, 18, from Cramlington, Northumberland. "I was having nightmares about opening the results and getting Fs."
Miss Chan said she was waiting to tell her parents before celebrating with friends. "I'm going out to celebrate and enjoy life while it lasts," she joked.
Making the grade while learning to speak English
Jayalakshmi Asokan, Preston
The 19-year-old travelled from Kerala, in southern India, to Preston in 2008 with aspirations of a career in chemical engineering.
Barely able to understand English, she enrolled at Preston College, taking up A-levels in maths, further maths and chemistry, while she took English language lessons. After getting three A* grades, she now plans to take a gap year and to continue volunteering in a local charity shop before studying chemical engineering at university.
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