Top grade 'does not indicate the best pupils'

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The Independent Online

Students face having their marks published alongside their grades in future in an effort to help universities identify the very brightest A-level students.

Leading universities say the doubling in A-grade passes over the past decade - 21 per cent now achieve one - has made it impossible for them to use the exam to select the most intelligent youngsters. Now the Government is urging Mike Tomlinson, who is heading the Government's inquiry into reforming 14-to-19 education, to find ways of discriminating between A-grade students.

However, previous attempts to do so, which included suggesting the introduction of an A-star grade, have been dogged by controversy.

Critics in the education world say that would only lead to a repeat of the problem in years to come - with schools striving to get as many of their pupils as possible to achieve the new grade.

Headteachers are backing the move to publish marks, believing it is the most acceptable way to bring about the change.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "I would prefer it to the other suggestions Downing Street have come forward with. You have to be careful about reading too much into the fact that a student has scored 83 per cent rather than 82 per cent - but provided we can be certain the assessments of the different exam boards are absolutely consistent with each other I think it could be the way forward."

The idea was also floated by Damian Green, the Conservatives' education spokesman, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday. He said that if universities knew a candidate had scored 95 per cent rather than 83 per cent, it "would distinguish a very, very good candidate from a very able candidate".

David Miliband, the minister for School Standards, said the Government wanted to be able to distinguish between top performing candidates. He said other countries had encountered difficulties in publishing percentages but that it was an option for Mr Tomlinson to consider.

Bill Swadling, admissions officer for Brasenose College, Oxford, told the Today programme: "The problem with the A-level is it no longer marks out the very good candidates. We're looking for the top 5 per cent. Ten years ago 10 per cent were getting A-grade passes. A-levels are no longer telling us which are the top students."

Another attempt to identify the elite has been the introduction of Advanced Extension Awards - dubbed world-class tests - which can be sat alongside A-levels. However, this year's results show that only a handful of students are taking them - there were 7,230 entries across 17 subject areas, an increase of only 389 on the first-year entry levels the previous year. Ministers are being urged by academics and headteachers to drop the tests as a means of identifying the cream of the crop because they put extra pressure on pupils. A simple publication of exam marks would avoid that.

A similar controversy is brewing in higher education with university degree passes. Last week The Independent revealed that employers believe they no longer indicate the high flyers, since the numbers obtaining 2:1 degrees has more than doubled over the past few years.

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