Universities: the grade 'A' problem

One in 10 pupils achieves straight 'A's in exams
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The Independent Online

At least one in 10 teenagers will get three straight A-grade passes today, as more pupils than ever before receive top grades in their A-levels. More than one in four scripts are expected to be awarded an A grade with less than three per cent of scripts set to be marked as a fail.

The rise in top grades is almost entirely down to improved performance by the country's independent schools and state grammar schools. The figures highlight the growing dilemma facing university admissions staff as they attempt to select the brightest candidates for popular courses amidst claims of growing grade inflation following 26 consecutive years of rises in the A-level pass rate.

Some admissions officers are now calling on more schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate which, they argue, makes it easier to differentiate between the brightest pupils. This year, The Independent has established, about 12,000 teenagers who will receive three A-grade passes at A-level have been turned down for places at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

University application figures show that 13,384 people applied to Oxford this year for about 3,000 places. Once overseas applicants have been taken out of the equation that leaves about 5,000 A-level candidates due to get three A-grade passes being refused admission.

At Cambridge, the university receives 14,000 applications – with just over 3,000 from overseas students – competing for 3,400 places. Dr Geoff Parks, head of admissions at Cambridge, said the vast majority of those applying from the UK would be expected to get three straight A-grades – which means about 7,000 in that position have been rejected.

Exam boards are today expected to announce a further rise in the percentage of scripts being awarded an A-grade pass – pushing it up from 25.3 per cent last year to about 26 per cent. A slight rise in the overall pass rate is expected, which would put it up to 97 per cent for the first time ever. In all, about 25,000 candidates out of an estimated 250,000 taking the exam, are expected to get three A-grade passes.

In an interview with The Independent, the Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell, said it would be "a record year" with more people going to university than ever before – and applications from candidates from disadvantaged areas rising as well. The figures emerge as a survey of university admissions officers published today reveals that six out of 10 believe A-levels in their current form do not encourage creativity.

Only half believe they encourage independent thought. The majority would like to see an expansion of the International Baccalaureate which – they believe – offers evidence of a much broader-based education and stretches students' creative skills. One admissions tutor told ACS International Schools, which conducted the survey: "A-levels need to recover creative thinking elements and skills needed for university study."

However, Mr Rammell said: "I think anybody who articulates the view that A-levels are worthless is flying in the face of reality – it is still an internationally reputable qualification – and is delivering a slap in the face to all students who have worked so hard."

A new A* grade will be introduced for candidates who start their A-levels next month with tougher essay-style questions designed to stretch thinking skills.