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

Share

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.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

Science Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

Cover Supervisor

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker