Leading article: The currency of exams must not be devalued

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The Independent Online

The idea of ranking university candidates according to their school is an attempt to overcome one of the more difficult problems afflicting our education system – namely that too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds are offered places by top universities.

It is a proposal that should be strongly resisted. Despite the best of intentions, the scheme is tantamount to an admission that Britain's least successful schools cannot be fixed. This not only shifts the emphasis away from the improvement of poor institutions, but also undermines the value of top-performing pupils' results.

To take just a single example: what about the child who comes from a poor home and gets a scholarship to a good independent school? Are we really saying that we do not want a disadvantaged pupil to take up a place at a better school, that we would rather they struggled on at the less-good local school their circumstances push them to attend?

Equally, those universities that accept lower grades on the understanding that the applicant comes from a sub-standard school are in danger of ending up with students who do not have the knowledge that they need, spreading the educational malaise from the school into the university sector.

In fairness, the paper published by the Assessment and Qualification Alliance does make it clear that the ranking would only be guidance for universities, and stresses that the final say on awarding a place would rest with admissions officers – probably after interviewing the candidates themselves. But evidence from the past suggests that guidance – particularly from government circles – tends to shape institutions' behaviour.

More than anything else, such measures should be unnecessary. It should not be beyond the capacity of university admissions officers to decide that, if a candidate from a low-performing school has A-level grades far in advance of his or her peers, it might be an idea to shortlist them for a place. It is to be hoped that, during the course of an interview, they could then decide on that candidate's potential without resorting to the formulaic social engineering envisaged today.