Universities may seek 18 'A grades' for popular courses

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Britain's brightest young people will need up to 18 A grades at A-level for the most popular university courses under a radical shake-up planned next year.

Universities are to be allowed access to students' individual grade passes for all six of the modules that go towards a full A-level.

The move is planned by exam boards after admissions tutors said they could not pick the best talent for popular courses such as law and medicine now so many A-level scripts were being awarded A grades.

The number of A-grade passes reached a record 22.8 per cent last year and will rise to about 23 per cent when this year's results are announced on Thursday.

The move is one of two changes to A-levels disclosed by Ellie Johnson Searle, chief executive of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) - the umbrella body representing all exam boards - in an interview with The Independent today.

She also said the boards would bring forward the publication of A-level results by between one and two weeks from 2008. This will pave the way for students to apply for university courses after they have received their results rather than be given provisional places based on expected grades.

The plan to give unit grades is to be piloted this year among 11 higher education institutions - including traditional universities and the former polytechnics.

Teachers' leaders say it will increase the pressure on candidates to keep up a high level of performance throughout the two years of their A-level course.

Dr Johnson Searle made it clear the pilot would allow universities to determine how much use the individual module grades would be in deciding on admissions - and not be used to determine individuals' applications. " There will then be a review of it," she added. "We're looking for this to be introduced in 2007 if all goes well."

She said the shake-up would allow universities to set specific requirements for particular courses - for example, stipulating that a candidate must achieve an A-grade pass in the maths statistics module for an oversubscribed maths course.

Under the present A-level syllabus, a candidate who sits exams in three subjects can achieve a maximum of 18 individual A-grade module passes. This will be reduced to 12 in 2008 when the number of modules is cut to four. But Dr Johnson-Searle said the new system would not only be of use in determining potential high-flyers - it would also help universities decide on borderline cases, such as where a candidate just missed out on a C-grade pass but did exceptionally well in a module relevant to the course he or she wanted to pursue.

She said the JCQ would release all the module information to Ucas, the university and colleges admissions service, for individual universities to use. "It will be giving them about 16 times more information than they have at present," she added.

On bringing forward the publication date, she said it would be a " fantastic opportunity" for students to have their A-level results to hand when applying for courses. Ministers believe it will lead to more pupils from deprived homes applying to top universities - arguing they are more reluctant to take the plunge before they see their results.

Exam boards would be able to make the change because of a switch to marking scripts online. "It will also cut down the stress of having to wait for the results," Dr Johnson Searle said.

Kathleen Tattersall, who chairs the Institute of Education Assessors, the professional body for exam markers, backed the move. She said: "If there are a lot of candidates with straight As, the universities may specify they would like to see six As in particular subjects."