Leading article: Some welcome forward thinking

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It will come as no consolation to the quarter of a million A-level students nervously waiting to pick up their results next week, but it has been predicted that the long summer wait for exam results could one day be substantially curtailed. Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, claims in an interview with The Independent today that A-level results will be ready as early as mid-July in a few years. This, according to Dr Boston, will be achieved by streamlined marking techniques and changing the curriculum so exams can be taken earlier.

This could have significant knock-on effects. For one thing, it would enable universities to move their applications process back to July and August, rather than holding them the autumn before the new term begins. We would welcome such new arrangements. As things stand, applicants have to be offered university places based on predicted grades and, in some institutions, interviews. A post-qualification application system would benefit students from poorer backgrounds, or those who have no family history of academic attainment. Under the present system, many such students are put off applying to elite universities, playing safe in their selections, or having little confidence in their predicted grades. If they could apply with their grades already in their back pockets, their confidence would be likely to improve. Fewer would sell themselves short in their choice of university.

Such a shift would also help university selectors to do their jobs more effectively. At the moment, those at the prestigious end of the system are forced to choose from a colossal range of students, many of which have been predicted A grades. Under a post-qualification system they would be sifting through those who had actually proved their academic credentials. It should be noted that almost half of predicted grades ultimately prove inaccurate. A much fairer system is plainly possible. And if it were combined with the introduction of a baccalaureate-style diploma, we would be well on our way to a fair and efficient examination and university application system, rather than the rather creaky edifice that exists at the moment.

Another consequence of bringing forward results and postponing applications would be an end of the chaos of the clearing system, under which those who have missed their required grades scrabble frantically for another place in which to study. But, as anyone who has been through that experience would doubtless attest, its demise would be no great shame. Indeed, the one unfortunate aspect of Dr Boston's prognosis is that he does not anticipate such a revolution taking place before 2012.

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