Richard Garner: Extra exams that give only the privileged few an advantage when it comes to admission

The big surprise was the leap in the number of youngsters taking Advanced Extension Award papers, which were up 28 per cent this year to 9,305. It is all the more surprising when you consider that both state and private school headteachers do not believe the exam is the answer to the vexed question of how universities select the most talented youngsters.

The tests are not available in every subject, so they unfairly discriminate against some students if used by universities to determine admissions, they argue.

The Government is trying to rectify the problem by inserting the kind of questions asked by an Advanced Extension Award paper into new half-hour papers for every subject. This will be piloted next year.

The trouble is, it is taking an awfully long time to get these papers off the ground and the problem (of selecting the best students for the most popular courses) is getting worse every year. As a result, individual universities are devising their own tests. Oxford and Cambridge have them for several subjects - such as law and medicine.

If this trend continues - and there is every likelihood it will - schools will be confronted with a plethora of tests for which to prepare their pupils, all of which will carry considerably more weight than A-levels.

Guess who will benefit? The pupils in the top independent schools, which have the time and resources to prepare their charges for whatever test they may have to take.

The gifted youngster in a state school serving a deprived community will lose out.

The Government's task force on university admissions, chaired by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, favours one common university test - along the lines of the United States's SATs tests - set by all universities.

That would be much better - for teachers and pupils - than a series of different tests.

But this abysmal saga would never have materialised if the Government had bitten the bullet earlier and realised something had to be done to make the A-level fit for the modern world we live in.

Their timid rejection of the recommendation by Sir Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14 to 19 education for a new overarching diploma to cover both academic and vocational qualifications hardly inspires hope that they are ready and willing to take the radical decisions necessary to overhaul the system.

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