A-level results, due out on Thursday, are expected to show another rise in pass rates and numbers of students getting top grades - making it increasingly difficult for universities to decide which are the most able students. The proportion of A-grades has been rising steadily over the past 10 years, to slightly over 16 per cent last year. Officials hope the new Special Level exams will give more information about the brightest students than an A-level A-grade alone.
Under the plan, specialised exams will be offered as an optional extra. They will be based on mainstream syllabuses but set at a higher level to offer a series of "starred A" grades. An English A-level student taking the extra paper, for example, would answer more sophisticated questions on the same texts studied for the basic papers. The new exams will be introduced in September 2000, alongside reformed A-levels.
Officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates all public examinations, hope the new Special papers will give high-flying students the chance of getting extra points under the A-level scoring system run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Universities have been asking students to achieve ever-higher grades for popular degrees, with students needing at least three As for many top-rated courses. Figures for last year's university entrance show the most difficult-to-enter courses, veterinary surgery, medicine and dentistry, require average grades just short of three As.
The new exams are intended to be a mass-market replacement for the current S-level papers, which have fallen into obscurity recently. Only 5,600 people took them last year, down from 17,400 in 1989. They will be part of a package to include new A-level syllabuses and revised intermediate AS-levels to encourage people to take a broad range of subjects.
George Turnbull, of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board, said: "If universities insist students have at least one S-level it will become extremely popular.Universities have not demanded it in the past. They have looked at GCSE results and people's personal attributes."
John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, warned of the practical problems of dealing with an extra exam. He said: "It's very good at stretching the abilities of the most able. The difficulty is whether they will find a way of setting papers which are realistic for schools to handle."
An Oxford University spokesman insisted exam results are only one part of assessment. "Oxford aims to interview every British applicant personally to have a first hand opportunity to assess their potential," he said.
Judith Norrington, curriculum director of the Association of Colleges, which represents sixth form colleges, added: "Part of the problem has been that some universities have had to choose between a lot of students with five As or four As. It's appropriate to have this route for students, but we would not like the most able students to have too narrow an education. They need to know about more than just academic work."
A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exam watchdog, said: "We believe that there is a role for special papers in challenging the most able students to have high levels of achievement. We shall be working with awarding bodies to provide new special papers from September 2000."
Exclusive UCAS clearing listings appear in the Independent from Thursday and in next week's Independent on Sunday.