A-level grades must be reformed to be fairer to all

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We should not hesitate to applaud those youngsters who will be celebrating the expected record A-level results on Thursday. But their success should not blind us to the fact that the current grading system needs urgent reform.

We should not hesitate to applaud those youngsters who will be celebrating the expected record A-level results on Thursday. But their success should not blind us to the fact that the current grading system needs urgent reform.

With more than one in five A-level scripts now awarded grade A, university admissions staff find it ever harder to select the brightest candidates for oversubscribed courses, to the point where they are setting their own tests. In an interview with The Independent today, Dr Ellie Johnson-Searle, the director of the umbrella body representing the exam boards, says that universities could distinguish between candidates if they were to ask them for their grades in each of the six modules which make up A-levels today. Only 5 or 6 per cent get top grades in all six.

While this could help, it is only a partial answer. A more convincing solution would be to reform the grading system as a whole so that it allows admissions tutors to differentiate between applicants more fairly. After all, the present grading system was devised at a time when there were far fewer A-level candidates and a far smaller proportion of them were awarded As.

There is a widespread view that we should wait for the conclusions of the inquiry into exam reform being conducted by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector. His final report is due this autumn. Many of his proposed reforms, however, such as replacing the current GCSE and A-level system with a new diploma, are for the long term and could take up to a decade to introduce. The grading system cannot wait that long.

His proposals for improving differentiation at the top end of A-levels - which include splitting the A grade into four to distinguish high-flyers from those who just scraped an A - should be considered a priority. Simpler, though bound to be widely unpopular, would be to raise the number of marks required for an A and adjust the other grades accordingly. Whatever the solution chosen, it should be in place by next year, rather than included in the wider consultations that the Tomlinson report's other conclusions will inevitably require.

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