Richard Garner: We must make exams more testing for all pupils

To make A-levels harder is not an admission they have been 'dumbed down'
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You do not have to be a signed up member of the "A-levels have been dumbed down" brigade to realise that something is seriously wrong with the exam. A-level results have improved year on year for a whole host of reasons - and these include more focussed teaching, the introduction of AS-levels (allowing students to drop their weakest subjects at the end of the first year of the sixth-form), and the modular system, which allows students to resit each of the six modules that go to make up an A-level until they get the grade they want.

But although the A-levels remain as difficult as ever they were, the exam is no longer performing the function it should in helping universities select the brightest candidates for their most sought-after courses - such as medicine and law. That is why I have no compunction in suggesting the exam should be made harder to pass and by harder to pass I mean that harder questions should be set in the main paper taken by all students.

The Government is talking about a half-hour extension paper to be sat by the brightest students - which would challenge them and show their true potential. Those who passed it could, under one idea being canvassed yesterday, claim an A-grade with distinction in their chosen subject.

I would prefer the whole cohort to be tested on the harder questions, as the danger is that - if you have a two-tier system - independent and grammar schools will be more likely to push their ablest pupils into taking the top-tier paper. It will be expected in those schools, and I can see some bright pupils who are in a minority in a struggling school missing out.

I also have no quarrel with the plan - revealed in The Independent last week - to give universities the grades for each of the six modules that go towards making up an A-level as well as the overall subject grade. Only 6 per cent of those youngsters who obtain three A grades at A-level also achieve an A grade in each module, so the additional information will be of great help to admissions tutors.

However, there is a move to cut down on the number of modules taken by pupils. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, wants to reduce the number from six to four in the next couple of years, which would be a welcome reduction in the examination burden faced by today's puils. That, though, would mean that university admissions tutors would need more information than just the module and subject grades to make informed choices.

Another method they could employ would be for students to sit US-style, university SAT tests - a move advocated by millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, who has set up a charity (the Sutton Trust) dedicated to improving working-class participation in higher education. He argues that SATs offer to all youngsters a level playing field on which to display their skills. Some statistical evidence shows that SATs do increase participation rates among the most deprived communities.

These tests are already adopted for some of the oversubscribed courses at several Russell Group universities - such as medicine and law. (The Russell Group represents the country's top 18 higher education research institutions). SAT tests also won support from the task force on university admissions set up by the Government and chaired by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University. He argued that they were preferable to individual universities setting their own admissions exams - and thereby confusing students with a plethora of different tests to prepare for.

No doubt SATs would add to the bank of knowledge being built up by admissions tutors about their potential students. However, to rely on them would be a mistake. That would just take some of the urgency away from reforming the present A-level system.

The Government is on the right track when it talks about making A-levels harder. To do so is not an admission that the exam has been "dumbed down" - merely that teachers have been so successful in improving the standards their pupils attain that a new hurdle is necessary to show they are the brightest.

After all, in the Olympic high jump, what do they do when the two athletes left in the event have both cleared the world record? They make the bar higher and ask them to vault the new height. There is no reason why we cannot apply the same philosophy to the A-level examination. The sadness is that it has taken us so long to realise it needs to be done - and that the university admissions process has become such a lottery for now.