Leading article: Admissions tests are no bad thing

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The Independent Online

The decision by eight élite universities to set their own admissions tests for law is another sign that A-levels are not a sophisticated enough tool for weeding out the best minds from those that have simply soaked up all the available facts and regurgitated them. In so doing, the deans of the law schools at the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, East Anglia, Nottingham, Oxford and University College London are following in the steps of the deans of some of the top medical schools, who have introduced a test to help them to select students for medicine and dentistry. There is nothing wrong with this. A-levels are taken by a much larger proportion of the population than previously, and students are performing better and better. Moreover, law schools are snowed under with applications. Birmingham, for example, receives more than 2,000 applications for only 220 places. So, it is inevitable that the best schools had to devise a better selection mechanism.

The hope of people such as Professor Steven Schwartz, the vice- chancellor and principal of Brunel University who is chairing an inquiry into university admissions, is that a new admissions test will be fairer, in that it will enable the universities to pick the students who are really deserving. Birmingham University says that it is committed to widening access not just to those who are disadvantaged, but also to mature applicants. The new National Admissions Test for Law should enable Birmingham to assess mature students who don't have academic qualifications more easily, it says. At least, that is the hope. The danger must be that the independent schools and the crammers will move in fast and start coaching their students for the test - and that candidates from the private sector will have an advantage over those from state schools. That, of course, is their right. It is the job of the state schools to ensure that this does not happen, just as it is the job of the eight universities to ensure that all schools know about the tests, have sample papers and are encouraged to prepare students for it.

The new move should not affect Mike Tomlinson's efforts to replace A-levels with a baccalaureate-style diploma. There is nothing wrong with having public examinations covering as wide a section of the population as possible - in fact, it is desirable - while having special extra tests in place for university entrance in subjects and to institutions that are very popular.