Leading article: An exam system that could serve our pupils better

A-levels remain demanding but they are not trusted and need reform
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The Independent Online

This year's crop of A-level results, out today, is confidently expected to follow the trend of steady improvement seen in recent years. And we will, as we always have done, resist the temptation to join the chorus of laments about "grade inflation" and "dumbing down". It stands to reason that today's exams, like today's school curricula, are different from those of yesteryear – and so they should be. The times are different, too. Everyone who knows anyone involved in A-levels is aware how hard pupils must work for their grades. This year's group will be the same.

If universities and employers are disappointed by gaps in the knowledge or skills of their new recruits – and their loudest recent complaints have been about the mastery of basic reading, writing and maths – this should not be laid at the door of individual pupils or teachers. Rather, it reflects the limits of the testing and exam system. Criticism needs to be addressed to those who can do something about it: ministers and regulators, not those receiving their results today.

The consistency of complaints about A-levels, however, does suggest that changes need to be made. It is not good that an exam always seen – not just here, but in many other countries – as the so-called gold standard among school-leaving qualifications should attract the scepticism that now so often attends it.

The increase in A grades awarded may or may not reflect an overall rise in standards. But what cannot be disputed is that it creates a problem for universities. Even a string of As is no guarantee of acceptance by one of the elite universities. As many as 12,000 pupils who learn today that they have attained three or more A grades will be rejected by Oxford or Cambridge. We may question the awe in which these two ancient universities are held, but they can, and often do, demand a minimum of three A grades from aspiring students. Even then, they can admit only a relatively small proportion of these high achievers.

The new A* grade was supposed to address this. But it is not due to come in until 2010, and even when it does, Oxford – for one – has already said that it will not use it, at least initially, as a basis for making conditional offers. As it is, more and more universities and departments are setting their own entrance tests – something that may well help those at schools which can afford to provide extra coaching, and so perpetuate the social divide that the top universities already stand accused of widening.

The other great shortcoming of A-levels is that most pupils have to make their choices in their mid-teens – choices that can determine not just a university course but a whole career. They may reach an enviable standard in a few subjects – a standard many universities have come to take for granted. But the sort of spread that would postpone the choice between arts and sciences, for instance, is nigh impossible in many schools.

The new diploma qualification was conceived as a solution; but it will now have to co-exist with A-levels and risks being dismissed as second-class before it has even got off the ground. A preferable solution would have been to introduce something along the lines of the International Baccalaureate. Already offered in some schools, it offers at least a partial answer to the problems of both grading and specialisation – and, what is more, an answer that is available "off the peg", as it were. Regrettably, it will probably not be until the mix of diplomas and A* grades is found wanting that the International Baccalaureate will be looked at again.