Trevor Fisher: More than ever, GCSE choices determine your life chances

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The Independent Online

Is university entrance now the real National Lottery? Unlike the event taking place each Saturday night, university entrance is less and less a transparent process governed by clear and logical rules. It is not widely understood that decisions students take in school can close doors to universities several years down the line.

The big issue over the next couple of months centres on the new grading system that begins next summer. Bizzarely, the government has had cold feet over the use of its flagship A-star grade. While it has allowed the grade to be awarded next summer, it has suggested for some reason that it should not be used for university entrance for at least three years. However, politicians have no power to enforce this proposal, and at least three universities – Cambridge, UCL and Imperial – have said they will do so.

Worse, it is open to individual subject and admission tutors to decide whether to use the A-star. It is therefore essential to discover whether courses demand the A-star or not, course by course.

For teachers, the problem of predicting whether a student will get an A-star is only part of the difficulty. If the task is simply to predict students who will gain 90 per cent of A-level marks, it is possible to predict A-star grades. The deeper problem is whether the government's plan to inject stretch and challenge into A-level has worked.

Ministers believe that the new syllabuses have made A-Level harder. If this is so, then all grades will demand better student performance. But teachers will have to assess whether students have reached the alleged new standards on limited evidence because it is new. That's why ministers have said the A star should not be used for three years.

The situation is worsened by the problem of "hard" and "soft" subjects. The Government does not accept these exist, but it is the admissions tutors who matter and in many cases they will not accept soft subjects. Because the official line is that there are no soft subjects, the advice teachers can give parents and students is limited. Thus some students choose options unaware these can bar their progress.

In recent years, two universities, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, have given invaluable advice on hard and soft subjects. Sadly, Cambridge has withdrawn its overall list of soft subject on the grounds that it has been criticised for publishing it. Potential students now have to wade through individual department requirements to see whether subjects are accepted.

The LSE is to be congratulated for continuing to publish its list, which has now grown to 16 subjects. Other universities should follow suit – and extend the practice to cover GCSE subjects and combinations of subjects. This is particularly so where the new Diploma is concerned. This is problematic for top university admission. Most universities will accept the diploma only in conjunction with at least one A-level, and students must find out what the acceptable combinations are.

It is vital to understand that university application now starts with the choice of GCSE subjects. By the time of sixth-form entry, some students will have closed down university options by their GCSE choices.

In the short term, for university entry next year, the advice to applicants must be caveat emptor. The buyer, in this case the student, has to play the game and if necessary divert attention from studying to scrutinise the fine print of university prospectuses. Increasingly, this has to be done before choosing courses at GCSE, AS and A-level. Otherwise students can find one university will admit them for a course which another university will bar them from taking, with exactly the same qualifications.

The long term question facing university admission is how to resolve this patently absurd situation. And for this a full scale commission of enquiry will be needed, independent of government, universities and UCAS. As things now stand, some schools can exploit their knowledge of the fine print, quite legally, while other schools are sadly unaware of the problems facing their students. It is clear that university entrance has become a lottery, and inside knowledge has become decisive. Is this reasonable or desirable?

The writer is a former head of history at a Midlands tertiary college