Trevor Fisher: A-levels are becoming a useless qualification

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The Independent Online

The risk of educational apartheid in England is growing rapidly. Andrew Boggis, the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), is right to warn about the dangers of a divided system, with public schools abandoning GCSEs and A-levels to set up their own exam system. But what some independent schools are planning is part of a wider issue. The university applications system is fragmenting.

Tony Blair may have been mistaken in ditching the Tomlinson Report of 2004, but his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major had begun alienating higher education by creating a mass post-16 education system without developing an adequate selection method. This created a sense that the regulators had lost control of standards. Neither Ruth Kelly's attempts to reform A-levels, nor the actions of her successor as education minister, Alan Johnson, have restored confidence among admissions tutors.

With 24 per cent of candidates gaining at least one grade A, tutors contend they cannot distinguish between exceptionally able candidates and those who are just very hard workers. It is surprising that the Government has not introduced an A-star grade at A-level, to aid discrimination. As it has failed to act, the elite universities have taken affairs into their own hands.

Various expedients have been adopted. Additional exams have been imposed, notably in popular subjects like medicine and law. A bright student faces the prospect that three A-levels at grade A are only the starting line if they are applying to an elite university, and they must jump through additional hurdles, such as intensive interviewing, and bespoke testing. This is on top of GCSEs at 16-plus, AS-levels at 17-plus, and A-levels at 18-plus.

Increasingly, admissions tutors make ex cathedra pronouncements on student admissions which suggest that they do not understand how sixth forms are changing. They appear overwhelmingly committed to the idea that three A-levels remains the tariff, though since Curriculum 2000 many of the ablest have been opting for four. Even more problematically, admissions tutors divide subjects into "hard" and "soft", with little scientific basis.

Manchester School of Law, for example, has a list of "soft" subjects which it will not accept, and argues, bizarrely, that "as law is a theoretical subject, we will only consider qualifications where theory comprises at least 70 per cent of the curriculum". How is this worked out? In history, politics and English literature, all of which I have taught, there is a conceptual element, but to assess this mathematically is absurd.

Law is so popular that the numbers applying give tutors a genuine headache, but headaches don't make for clear thinking. This year, for example, Warwick School of Law has insisted that students gain the usual three A grades plus a grade C in an AS subject. But this is unlikely to help as the students who gain three A grades are likely to have achieved four top AS grades. Perhaps because of this, Cambridge is insisting on receiving the actual AS-module marks, though it is absurd to rely on a qualification lower than A-level for university admission.

Cambridge is posing particular problems. In August, the university issued a list of 21 subjects which it regarded as "soft" and of dubious value. This list was highly subjective, and included subjects which are clearly intellectually demanding but outside the world-view of the more traditional admissions tutors, for example "critical thinking" and general studies. Critical thinking, an outcome of the Dearing Report of 1996, has a rigour which elite universities should favour. It suffers from being new and largely unknown.

University entrance procedures are becoming a lottery. While admissions tutors have genuine problems with the flood of A grades, their responses, and those of the regulatory bodies, have been alarmingly ineffective. Guiding students through university entrance is becoming a Kafka-esque exercise as universities lose faith in A-levels.

There is a real danger that the Government's next batch of reforms in September 2008 will destroy what little confidence remains within the academic community. No one can seriously imagine that the move to reduce modules from six to four will be seen as anything more than an attack on standards.

The lack of confidence in A-levels is now alarming, and the response of public schools to opt out is logical, if irresponsible. The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, should accept that reform of A-level in autumn 2008 could destabilise the exams system, postpone it, and seek to build a new consensus on examinations and university entry if the A-level system is not to come apart at the seams.

The writer is the head of history at Newcastle-under-Lyme College