Richard Garner: The Basil Fawlty solution to the university placings nightmare

You can almost hear the words "eeez crazy, Mr Fawlty, eeez crazy" forming on his lips


If you had to invent a system to transport a country's brightest students into university, you would be unlikely to start from here.

The annual rigmarole is over for another year. Thousands of A-level students have been pictured leaping for joy or looking anguished trying to escape from the cameras after arriving at their schools and colleges last Thursday to find out their results. For many of them, it was then a case of going back home and looking up the Ucas website and telephoning universities to see what was on offer.

By midday, there had been 220,000 "hits" on the website and 221,109 university places had been confirmed. Both figures were a record and it all took place in the course of a morning.

Try explaining it to the proverbial visitor from Mars. Perhaps a better suggestion would be to imagine it was Manuel from Fawlty Towers who was asking you for an explanation. You can almost hear the words "eeez crazy, Mr Fawlty, eeez crazy" forming on his lips.

You could see how the conversation would go. You interview the potential students before they take their crucial exams. I see. Then you offer them a place based on what people think they are going to get in these exams. Fine. Then, if they don't get what somebody else thought they were going to get, you offer the place to someone else and the original person goes off desperately searching for an alternative course. Great.

The trouble is that no-one seems to be agreed on an alternative when the answer, to continue the analogy with Fawlty Towers could be to tell them in the words of hotel owner Basil: "Look, it's all perfectly simple!"

In a nutshell, it would be for students to be offered the university place after they have completed their A-levels. The best way for this to be achieved would be to press full steam ahead with the adoption of the new five or six-term year advocated by many local education authorities and backed in an independent inquiry into the school year conducted by Christopher Price, a former Labour MP.

Under this system, exams would be brought forward to the end of the fourth or fifth term and be completed by May with the results being known by the end of June (during term time and therefore not ruining the summer holidays of so many people). The universities would then be able to conduct their interviews afterwards in the full knowledge of what had been achieved by the students. (An added advantage of this approach to the school year is that exams would not have to be sat at the worst time of the year for hay fever sufferers.)

The only problem is you have to get agreement between the 168 local education authorities, teachers' unions, universities and several other vested interest groups including the churches, who do not like the fact the Easter break may have to be tampered with to bring about the change. All that is very difficult to do when the Government refuses to intervene.

A second way of achieving change would be to get the universities to agree to let students start their courses in, say, January rather than during the autumn. This would give them the time to conduct interviews after the examinations.

The other main area of contention during the last week has been the rise in the pass rate for the 19th successive year. Are standards slipping or are our youngsters getting brighter? If two bodies as august and as sceptical as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, can find no evidence of standards slipping after an exhaustive investigation, I tend to back their judgement. Many career paths nowadays are blocked to those who do not have a degree. Teachers know this. Their students know this. And the sort who would not have tried hard on their A-levels in the past are now aware that they must.

Where I can agree that there might be some argument for change is in the marking instructions. I understand the arguments of some in the university sector that the welter of A-grade passes they are presented with makes it difficult for them to pick out the really outstanding candidates. The Government's answer to this is to introduce new extension awards along the lines of the S level which will stretch the brightest students but it seems to me we have an overtested nation already.

A simpler way may be to change the grading system, introducing more grades if necessary and making it harder to achieve an A-grade pass. It would be interesting to have a debate about this conducted at a higher level than the "things ain't what they used to be" mutterings of those who think it is easy for the present generation to pass exams. Any parent with a child going through the system should be able to disabuse them of that notion.

Talk of an overtested nation brings me to the youngsters who sat the AS level examination for the first time this summer. My heart goes out to them as the "guinea pigs" for virtually every test and examination introduced by this Government and its predecessor. They were the first to take the national curriculum tests for seven-year-olds, the first to take the stage-two tests for 11-year-olds. Next year they will be the first to complete the "Curriculum 2000" A2 levels which follow on from AS levels. At least by the time they get to university, they should be able to relax in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be the "guinea pigs" for a new style of university degree – unless there is some think tank or policy wonk out there who is dreaming of a new "half a degree" level which can give those who drop out of university something to show for their efforts. Perish the thought.

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