Warning to boys: don't leave it too late

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A letter to an independent school from an Oxbridge tutor put in black and white what many suspected - elite universities are using GCSE results to cherry-pick students. This is causing outrage in boys' schools, who fear that their pupils are the victims of discrimination.

Getting a place at one of the top universities has never been easy. We used to think it depended on A-level performance. If you got three As, or near enough, you could find yourself at Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, St Andrews, or one of the top redbricks. Now, however, because of the pressure on places and the increasing number of students gaining A grades, universities are looking for other criteria to distinguish between candidates. Increasingly, they are using stellar performance at GCSE level to help them select the few who will be offered places.

That is worrying some people because GCSEs were never designed for university entrance. And it disturbs boys' schools, in particular, because boys do worse at GCSE than girls. They develop later, sometimes waking up only in the sixth form.

"Some of the top universities are losing the best candidates by using a GCSE filter," says Martin Stephen, the outspoken head of Manchester Grammar School. "Some of the brightest don't develop in a conventional way. Universities are in danger of selecting little goodie-two-shoes without real flair and creativity."

It has been clear for some years that GCSEs have become increasingly important to admissions officers overwhelmed with applicants for popular subjects - such as English, history, law, medicine and veterinary science. This academic year, however, one independent school headmaster, Stephen Smith of Bedford Modern School, received more concrete evidence. An Oxbridge don wrote to him to say it was beginning to look as though very few students would be accepted in future without a full set of A grades at GCSE, particularly if they came from independent schools.

The letter added that candidates who were outstanding only in a handful of subjects, or who only developed during their A-level years, would be disadvantaged in future. It was difficult to push their case when a high proportion of applicants had such good GCSEs, the tutor concluded.

That letter dismayed Mr Smith. "You want to make sure that if you're putting candidates in for Oxford and Cambridge they stand an equal chance," he says. "A system which filters out boys on GCSE performance is not really centring on talent and abilities for the future, but on the grades achieved. And the people who achieve top grades aren't necessarily the most able. You're likely to select conformists, not the people who have taken risks. But adolescents do take risks, and they often get it wrong. The people who get it wrong at 15 and 16 will not be able to recover so effectively if colleges are weeding them out on the basis of GCSEs. That's not what education should be about at all."

The letter also shocked other independent school heads. "I think that it's appalling," says James Miller, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. "They're saying that they're not interested in how good somebody is going to be, or how good they are now. They're interested in how good they were at a particular time. That runs counter to any idea of academic excellence. It certainly penalises people who develop late or are somewhat one-sided in their abilities. A lot of the most brilliant people at Oxford will have been one-sided."

The head of one state school, Latymer, a mixed grammar in Edmonton, north London, was also surprised. "How narrow-minded and blinkered can you be?" asked Geoffrey Mills. "Performance at GCSE is highly diligence-related. Hence the superior performance of girls."

One of the main reasons why GCSE results are important to admissions officers is that they provide hard evidence of achievement. Because of the United Kingdom's peculiar university admissions system, whereby offers of places are based mainly on predicted A-level grades rather than grades achieved, admissions officers have had to rely on teachers' guesses. And, of course, teachers may have their favourites. They may also be inclined to view some of their pupils through rose-tinted spectacles. Certainly official figures show that schools expect their pupils to do better than they in fact do. That is why admissions officers have cause to be suspicious of predicted grades.

Second, some admissions tutors believe GCSEs to be a better predictor of degree performance than A-levels (although not everyone accepts this). Third, universities are overwhelmed with applications in certain subjects. And they are increasingly inundated with applications from people who have performed brilliantly at GCSE and are predicted to do brilliantly at A-level. This phenomenon is known as "grade inflation". More and more students are doing better and better. So it is increasingly difficult for Oxbridge tutors to justify admitting students who haven't bothered to get good GCSEs.

Other universities, particularly the highly-rated redbricks which receive more applicants per place than Oxbridge, have been operating the GCSE sieve for some time. Nottingham Medical School, for example, requires budding medical students to have six A grades at GCSE. According to Professor David James, Nottingham's admissions sub-dean, GCSEs show people who are academically able. "There's sometimes a discrepancy between predicted A-levels and those achieved," he says.

Newcastle, which receives 13 applications for every place, is another medical school requiring a string of A grades. It operates a points formula which effectively means successful applicants need As in five GCSEs and three A-levels. "GCSE grades are the known quantity at the time we make most of our offers," says Professor Reg Jordan, director of medical studies.

At Edinburgh University there are 10 applications for every place in the arts faculty. For Dr Glenys Davies, associate dean for admissions in the arts at Edinburgh, GCSEs are important because the university is looking for breadth in subjects, for example decent scores in English, maths or science, and a language.

"I'm using GCSEs increasingly in the high-pressured subjects - English literature, for example - and maybe history and politics, where I'm having to choose between excellent candidates, people who have either got very good A-levels or Highers (the Scottish equivalent), or are predicted to get strings of As. That's the point at which you start looking at how they did at GCSE. Have they got all As? Have they got some Bs, Cs and Ds?

"Obviously you will be looking at the school report and their personal statement. But you're going to start looking at what they've achieved earlier on. When you're having to choose between two excellent candidates, that can tip the balance. But it's not something we would do mechanically."

It is clear that some admissions officers in popular subjects at popular universities are using a GCSE filter to make a preliminary cull of applicants. But it is not a blanket policy. It depends on the tutor, the college, the university and the subject.

The letter from the Oxbridge college should be seen in the context of new pressure on the two ancient universities to recruit more widely from comprehensive schools, which educate the vast bulk of the population. Oxford, for example, takes half of its students from independent schools, which educate less than 10 per cent of pupils. It is not surprising, therefore, that a college is deciding to tighten up entry requirements for independent schoolboys.

But independent schools are angry that a higher standard is being expected of them. "That is not fair," says Dr John Moore, headmaster of the King's School, Worcester, and chairman of the academic policy committee of Headmasters' Conference. "The candidates are individuals. They're at the school they're at because their parents have sent them there. This is prejudice."

Although most Oxbridge heads of college accept that GCSE grades are a factor in selection, most argue that they are only one factor. According to Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, two criteria carry the day: the school's reference, and GCSE results. "The only evidence you've got of whether they're any good or not is whether they've got lots of GCSEs and if they've got them at a high level," he says. "I think it's absolutely frightful, because it penalises people for the indiscretions of being 13 years old. Getting As at GCSE doesn't show you've got any brains but it does show if you're reasonably teachable. It shows that you can co- operate. It's really a moral test."

Eric Anderson, rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, says his college takes four pieces of evidence into account: GCSE grades, A-level predictions, the school's reference and its own judgment at interview. The last two are the most important. "We're interested in what the school has got to write about someone," he says. "We're interested in people who develop in the sixth form, and we're interested in summing them up at interview. GCSE results are just one piece of evidence."

The letter sent to Bedford Modern is certainly not Oxford or Cambridge university policy. Miss Jane Minto, Oxford's admissions secretary, says all candidates are looked at on their merits. "Performance at GCSE which was below an A in every subject would certainly not be a bar to admission," she explains. "It would be one of the factors tutors take into account. They will actually be more interested in progression to years 12 and 13, how potential students are faring with their courses and aptitude and development at that stage."

Cambridge expects candidates to have done well, according to Susan Stobbs, chairman of the university's admissions forum. "We look at the context of the sort of school they've been at," she says. "We expect them to have done well whatever environment they're in - but how well they've done will depend on their school."

There is one lesson for schools and parents in all this. If a pupil has done only averagely at GCSEs but has blossomed during A-levels, it is worth waiting until after A-levels to apply to university. That is the policy Winchester College operates. With any luck the pupil will then have a clutch of A grades at A-level and a glowing reference from the school, and will be snapped up by their chosen institution.

"Universities are in danger of selecting little goodie-two-shoes without real flair and creativity."

Martin Stephen, high master of Manchester Grammar School.

"You're more likely to select the conformists, not those people who have taken risks." Stephen Smith, head of Bedford Modern.

"It certainly penalises people who develop late or are somewhat one- sided in their abilities. A lot of the most brilliant people at Oxford will have been one-sided." James Miller, head of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle.

"I think it's absolutely frightful because it penalises people for the indiscretions of being 13 years old. Getting As at GCSE doesn't show you've got any brains, but it does show that you're reasonably teachable. It shows you can co-operate." Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford.