Results add to pressure for reform of A-levels

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The Independent Online

Ministers face a growing clamour to introduce a new A* grade at A-level in the wake of the high number of candidates achieving three straight grade-A passes in their exams.

Nearly 250,000 A-level candidates receive their results today with educationists predicting a further rise in the record 22.8 per cent of A-grade passes achieved last year. The head of the largest exam board in the UK and one of the country's most respected academics have joined in a growing chorus demanding a new top grade.

Downing Street is known to favour the idea and is expected to make a decision later in the year. But it is strongly opposed by heads and teachers' leaders who believe it will devalue the A and B grades achieved by pupils and place already overstretched pupils under further strain.

One insider predicted that today's results would see the percentage of A-grade passes rise to about 23.3per cent. But there is unlikely to be any major change in last year's overall pass rate of 96.2 per cent.

Girls are likely to outperform boys again - with nearly one in four achieving A-grade passes. Today's results are also set to show a further rise in the number of candidates opting to take religious studies - up 16.9 per cent to 14,418 last year. Senior examiners say pupils have opted for the subject because of the world situation. They want to have an understanding of the complexities of the faith communities, said one, in the wake of terror threats.

Even if the A-grade pass rate today holds firm at last year's record, university admissions tutors still believe it will make impossible the task of choosing candidates for popular courses such as law and medicine. Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, said: "An A* grade would help universities to choose the really talented. You would be able to see all those who had scored over 90 per cent."

Mike Creswell, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance - the largest exam board in the UK - acknowledged he had made a U-turn over the A* grade. "I believe we do have to start thinking about providing assistance to universities for those highly popular courses which are oversubscribed."

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the move would increase the stress on students - and devalue existing A and B-grade passes. "We already have the world's most tested children at 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18," he said. "When they introduced the A* grade at GCSE it increased stress - with more teenage girls suffering from anorexia. We don't need it."