Leading article: A* fails to make the grade

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The Independent Online

The news that thousands of youngsters with A* grades at A-level will have been turned away by Oxbridge this year is perhaps not surprising in itself.

With grade inflation and more universities demanding an A* grade for courses, the A* has almost become as essential as the A grade was in the past to gain access to the UK's top universities.

What it does show, though, is that the new A* grade is not doing the job for which it was intended – marking out the brightest candidates for the most popular universities. One reform which would help it to achieve this end is to move towards post-qualification application – ie students applying to university after they have received their results rather than being offered places based on predicted grades. At the very least that would put a stop to universities offering places to students who fail to achieve their predicted grades – and then being forced to rethink to whom they offered places. It could also open up the possibility of university admissions tutors being able to see the marks obtained by candidates to determine whether they had just scraped through to an A* pass or sailed through with flying colours.

Obviously, you would not want a rigid system whereby 86.5 per cent meant acceptance and 86 per cent rejection. But 97 per cent and 86 respectively – why not? For too long, the educational establishment has been resisting the change to students applying for places post A-level. Universities are reluctant to alter the start of their term and exam boards the timing of their exams. Universities Secretary David Willetts' White Paper on higher education opens the door to discussing this option again. Today's figures show it should be seized with both hands.

In addition, exam boards might look at their grade boundaries and see whether they should be alerted to ensure that the awarding of an A* grade really is an indicator of exceptional performance rather than, as one commentator put it, "the new A grade".