Bethan Marshall: Getting into university should not be a race

A-levels have only ever been, at best, a proxy indicator of future performance

Maybe it's because I've been watching too many Olympian endeavours this week, but it seems that in the annual discussion on the state of A-levels there has been a greater competitive edge. Not between the discussants but on the nature of the exams - "which were harder, the ones 20 years ago or those taken now? Are boys going to beat girls for the top grades again as the performance-percentage gap gets smaller?" And, most importantly, "do A-levels still have a role in the race for university places?"

The sporting metaphor is more than decorative, however. For a comparison with the events in Athens illuminates the way we discuss these exams. Although it is a favourite pub pastime to debate whether Ali in his prime would beat an in-form Tyson, or if this summer's losing England side would beat the World Cup winners of 1966, there is an acceptance that sporting records are there to be broken. Anyone running anything less than a sub four-minute mile wouldn't even qualify for the Olympics let alone become a national hero, as Bannister was 50 years ago. This, in a way, is David Miliband's argument. Teaching has improved, pupils are working harder, the qualifications required for university admission have been raised, so of course the grades are getting better.

Yet essay questions and exam marking feel much murkier and more challengeable than seconds off a clock and so the standards debate will never disappear. But, in another sense, those trying to solve the crisis of the number of A-grade candidates between whom universities must discriminate are proposing a system which is designed to suggest a similar precision to that of the stopwatch. Michael Tomlinson, responsible for the review of A-levels, is considering subdividing the A grade into four. Others want the individual marks for each module, paper, even question, to be published - the academic equivalent of the hundredth of a second that can divide the winners from the losers.

The difficulty with this approach is that giving a mark on an exam is less precise than a stopwatch or photo finish - and even these have been queried. The difference between 83 per cent and 84 per cent in a subject like English or history will always be a vague judgement rather than an arithmetical measurement. Again the sporting world is instructive. Gymnastics, for example, has numerical marking based on criteria but the final decision is based on an aggregate of several judges, who do not always agree, not the say so of one assessor, as for most A-level papers. Moreover these super athletes, unlike A-level candidates, are judged on more than one performance.

But all these sporting comparisons only hold good if we assume that A-levels are, or should be, a competitive exam. The reason they remain so is because the pressure for university places has increased and at the moment they are the main means of selecting students. But it does not have to be this way. The United States, for example separates out high school graduation or matriculation from university entrance exams. One of the difficulties with the way in which some subjects are perceived as harder than others in this country is that they become risky to take if you need straight As. Whether Physics is actually more difficult than English is debatable. I would argue it isn't, but it is enough that it is thought to be so to put off potential candidates. The same is true of modern languages.

Uncouple the course from the scramble to get places and one of the barriers to sixth-formers taking these subjects vanishes.

Intellectual enquiry for its own sake, rather than an almost pathological adherence to the minutiae of the assessment criteria, might return. The sporting competitive analogy fails us in one other respect. A-levels have only ever been, at best, a proxy indicator of future performance. There has never been a clear correlation between A-level grades and degree class, even less of a connection between exam marks and career success. All those girls who beat the boys at A-level will soon be overtaken in the salary stakes.

Rather than rehearsing the same tired arguments each year, we need, instead, to ask what would help our 18-year-olds. Separating school matric- ulation from university entrance would be a start but letting go of a few myths about what A-levels do and don't tell us about a person's actual ability or potential might be equally important if we are to change anything at all.

The writer lectures on education at King's College, London