The crazy catapult to college: Entry into higher education may need reform, argues Susan Elkin, but A-levels must remain

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The Independent Online
THIS MORNING, anxious 18-year- olds and their concerned parents will converge in huge numbers on schools to discover the worst - or the best. If their A-level grades conform to the higher education offer made some months ago then all is well: smiles and/or tears of relief, a quick note or call to the college, put the champagne in the ice bucket.

For those whose grades fall short a gigantic dinosaur of a 'system' now lumbers clumsily into operation. Head teachers and key senior staff make themselves continuously available. For many hours each day they advise, counsel, comfort, make telephone calls and exploit their contacts. The arrival of A-level results abruptly terminates the much-envied 'long' summer holiday for large numbers of teachers.

Students are always strictly warned that on no account should they be away at this crucial time, when every hour counts. But it is strictly de trop for parents to act on behalf of their offspring at this time. Just what you're supposed to do if your offspring is playing in a foreign concert tour with a prestigious youth orchestra when his A-level grades fall short of the requirements for his music degree course, is not quite clear.

When I found myself in this position a few years ago I broke the 'rules' and risked being soundly snubbed. I did find my son a place, but the weary admissions tutor who rang me at 9.30 one evening made it quite clear that he wasn't happy with me as a proxy. I wonder if my son would have got the place if it hadn't been for his membership of the youth orchestra?

College admissions tutors and their support staff now go into overdrive. For weeks they will be expected to work round the clock under colossal pressure. I wonder how many of the rapid offers and rejections made at this time will turn out to have been wise in the long run?

Newspapers will shortly begin daily to publish pages of tabular information - plenty of places left on the honours degree course in Swahili with Computing at University of X or Medieval Theology with Siberian Studies at University of Y. And the computerised 'clearing' system will grind away trying to match leftover students with leftover courses. The sands of time trickle inexorably. The feverish sense of desperation grows.

Once a place is secured, the short timespan immediately creates its own practical problems. It may already be September and by the end of the month the student must find a place to live in a town he/she may never have visited. Late acceptances are always at the end of the accommodation queue . . . and so it goes on.

The whole procedure is nonsense and should be scrapped forthwith. This annual hit-and-miss shambles is no way to organise the education of our brightest young people, Britain's hope for the future. We cannot afford mistakes.

Reform is therefore urgent - but not in the way Tony Blair has threatened, or Gillian Shephard hinted at. Both of them are barking up totally the wrong tree. Scrapping A-levels is not the answer.

There is nothing wrong with A-levels that the addition of some parallel (not replacement) vocational courses will not rectify. It is the last bastion of real academic rigour in mainstream education and any party which throws it away in favour of some vague, 'skills-led', modular GCSE-type alternative will rue the day.

Reforming zeal should, rather, concentrate on timing and logistics. There are two possible lines of improvement. First, instead of A-levels being taken in June/July they could be sat the previous December. Results - if it really needs two months to produce them - would then be available in February, permitting six clear months for application, interview and the formulation of properly considered decision-making on all sides. There would be no need for the notoriously unreliable 'predictions' and provisional offers, and everyone would know precisely where he/she was.

The main problem with this change of calendar is that it would reduce to four terms the time available for A- level teaching and might impinge backwards into GCSE courses.

That is why my favoured option is for A-levels to stay where they are, but for all higher education applications to be made 12 months ahead. Thus, the usual age for embarking on a higher education course would become 19, not 18, and a student receiving results today would set about applying for a place for autumn 1995. Some students, of course, already choose deferred entry. Others apply from scratch once they know their grades. This, I contend, should become normal practice for all.

The advantages would be enormous. All students would have a few months to do some growing up, work experience, part-time work, travel, voluntary work, acquisition of useful skills such as word-processing, cookery, car maintenance or whatever. Think of the benefits in terms of the widening of experience and horizons. I believe that breaking the rigid school/college continuum would ensure a higher level of maturity and commitment among undergraduates.

There have been mutterings from, among others, the Labour Party and Prince Charles to the effect that Britain needs some sort of Citizens' Service as an optional late 20th-century non-military version of national service. An enforced year 'out' of full- time education would be a perfect slot in which the development and take-up of such a scheme could be encouraged.

My sympathy is with those young people as they rip open their envelopes or scan noticeboards this morning. So much hangs on their A-level results, and the propulsive force of the high-speed catapult which will now take hold of many of them is both socially distasteful and educationally unsatisfactory. It must be stopped.

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