Ucas defies ministers on `A level' changes

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT claimed yesterday that radical proposals for reforming the A-level scoring system used by university admissions tutors would devalue high grades.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said the current practice of awarding points for each A-level grade was "crude" and inadequate for assessing university entrance or drawing up school league tables.

The current points system, which dates from the 1960s, scores A-levels from 10 points for an A to two points for an E, making an A worth five times as much as an E.

The new system, due to be introduced in 2002, will bring the grades closer, by reducing the ratio between A and E to three to one - awarding 120 points for an A and 40 points for an E. That was welcomed by universities and head teachers yesterday.

But a spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "Ministers do not believe there is a need to change the ratio between A and E grades from five to one and cannot support this decision. We must not do anything to devalue the achievements of our best A-level students."

Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, insisted the existing system bore little relationship to the marks achieved in A-level exams, where students can get an A grade with 70 per cent and an E with around 45 per cent.

He said: "I understand perfectly the DfEE does not want to devalue achievement by top A-level students. At the same time, we do not want to devalue achievement made by those who get A-levels lower than an A.

He said the new system had overwhelming support in schools and universities and would lead to more accurate league tables by covering a wider range of qualifications. It would also bring a host of other sixth-form qualifications into the system, awarding points for General National Vocational Qualifications, Scottish Highers and the new key skills qualifications due to be launched in 2002.

He said: "The current A-level points scoring system is a crude device, introduced more than 30 years ago as a form of internal statistical shorthand. It bears little relation to achievement at A-level and was never meant to be used for allocating university places; still less for performance tables."

Ucas is independent and does not need Government approval to change the system, which is used as a shorthand by admissions officers when sifting through students' exam grades. The points are also used in sixth- form league tables.

The DfEE spokeswoman said there were no current plans to change the school league tables, currently based on the existing Ucas points. "Decisions on 2002 performance tables will not be taken until nearer the time," she said.

The new ratios, however, were welcomed by the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC), which represents Britain's public schools. Leading independent school heads had been among the most vocal critics of change.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said the change would be "helpful", while John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, also welcomed the move. He said: "The new tariff recognises the broader achievements of university applicants, including vocational qualifications and key skills."