When straight 'A's at A-level are no longer good enough

A new exam aimed at the top 10 per cent of sixth-form achievers is undergoing trials. But is there a chance that the format will only increase inequalities between schools?
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A unique trial involving 1,000 of Britain's most talen- ted young people comes to an end this week. Sixth-formers in 55 schools and colleges across Britain have been taking exams which could become the blueprint for the way the nation selects the intellectual élite of the 21st century.

A unique trial involving 1,000 of Britain's most talen- ted young people comes to an end this week. Sixth-formers in 55 schools and colleges across Britain have been taking exams which could become the blueprint for the way the nation selects the intellectual élite of the 21st century.

The Independent has been given exclusive access to the first of the Government's new super A-levels - extension papers taken by the brightest sixth-formers in the country. Papers in maths, English, French, geography and chemistry will form the basis of the new Advanced Extension exams, to be launched in 2002 and targeted on the top 10 per cent of A-level performers.

Examples in our box opposite reveal a tough academic diet which will challenge the brightest and suggest that extra teaching for the exam may be needed - something that independent schools have considerably more resources for than state schools. The new papers may not be providing the level playing field it was hoped they would.

The final list of subjects will include biology, economics, history, German, Latin, physics, religious studies, Spanish and a special paper in critical thinking. More subjects are expected to follow. AE-levels will replace the dwindling Special-Paper exam, which had its roots in the old state-scholarship exams of the 1940s and 1950s.

But while the S-level fast became the preserve of independent schools with the staff and time to offer special teaching, the AE is supposed to be the people's academic exam, one answer to Gordon Brown's charges of élitism in recruitment to the leading research universities. It requires no special teaching - at least in theory - and could be taken by pupils at inner-city comprehensives and ancient public schools alike.

The trials have been drawn up by working groups from some of Britain's best-known universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Manchester, Imperial College and Durham. Teachers drawn from state schools and colleges and leading public schools have also been involved.

Their brief was to draw up an exam which could stretch the most gifted sixth-formers, and provide results which would help admissions tutors choose between the increasing proportion of young people securing straight As at A-level. Admissions officers are still cagey about how much attention they will pay to the new qualification before the final look of the new exams is known. But Oxford and Cambridge and other élite universities are known to be keenly interested in the pilots.

It is a hugely contentious area, made politically explosive by Gordon Brown's attack on Oxford after a Tyneside teenager, Laura Spence, was rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford, only to land a £64,000 scholarship to Harvard.

The AE-level exam bursts on to the scene amid calls for a root-and-branch overhaul of university admissions, and trials of American-style Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which attempt to measure pupils' potential using techniques derived from IQ tests rather than the tests of academic ability familiar to generations of British sixth-formers.

The trial Advanced Extension papers being tested by the Government's exams regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are designed to test in-depth powers of analysis and argument. Some are laid out as conventional three-hour essay or question-and-answer papers; a harder version of the A-level.

Others require students to study a pack of materials and articles days before the exam. The trial AE in chemistry asks students to study a series of articles and letters from The Independent before the exam.

In other papers, students must respond critically to a mass of information they only see in the exam hall. English students must plough through a 19-page booklet of translations and commentaries on Dante's Inferno before answering two essay questions in a three-hour exam.

Easy, it is not. "It's much harder than A-level and I think some of the top 10 per cent would have problems," said Dr Geoffrey Day, head of English at Winchester, which put six students in for the pilots.

"They said they enjoyed it, to my slight surprise. I looked at the paper and thought I would rather not take it myself."

But Dr Day's experience points to a severe problem for exam writers working during a political class war; an academic exam may make social élitism more pronounced.

"In Winchester we have a lesson called 'Div' which is a non-examined course giving the boys a cultural background," Dr Day said. "The boys taking the trial said the work they had done in the non-examined course was more useful than the work they did in English. One had read Inferno in Div. I would not want to have done this having just done an A-level course. It would be really hard because I might be presented with ideas I had not encountered before."

He is not the only one to find the test demanding. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, and a former maths teacher, polished off examples from the AE maths, finding it challenging but fair. "You have to think about it. It is based on the maths syllabus, but it requires a good deal of in-depth thought to crack the problem."

There is, however, a crucial problem for the Government, which wants to attack élitism on the one hand, but faces reinforcing it with a test that could favour specially prepared,public-school pupils.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, warns: "If you have schools with relatively low expectations, they may not put pupils into this test. It's the same issue about trying to increase applications to the top universities. Some people are writing themselves off or their teachers are writing them off."

Mr Dunford expressed the mixed feelings of many heads. "I was beginning to hear that the most selective universities were considering having their own entrance examinations," he says. "The greatest success of the AE exam would be if it prevents that happening.

"But state schools always have problems because of their pupil-teacher ratio, which is much worse than the independent schools which have more capacity to run specialist courses for people applying to Oxbridge. If this exam is used more widely it might be more economic to run a course, but that will require funding."