There's more to it than simply making the grade: A-levels will always be important, but universities should delve deeper when assessing a student's potential, says Colin Hughes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Last Thursday, around one in five 18- year-olds heard the results of the A-level exams they sat this summer. Many will go on to higher education. For those whose university places have not yet been confirmed, the grades they scored will, over the next few weeks, play a critical part in deciding their futures.

It is not merely a matter of whether they passed or failed. Whether they have two Bs and a C, or a clutch of As, may make a huge difference to the universities they attend and the subjects they study.

The steady improvement in standards at A-level should be celebrated: more students are collecting good grades, making them eligible for better careers. But despite the expansion of places in higher education, the same trend increases the pressure on universities to choose students on the basis of their A-level grades.

Some institutions, on hearing that more candidates than ever had achieved good grades, warned that they might have to raise the 'point count' for entry to some of their courses. That means that prospective students who fall a grade or two short of their expectations may have to find other places, or retake their exams.

At first sight this seems the fairest way to apportion places. But are A-level grades really the best way of predicting which students will turn out to be the most academically able, let alone the most productive employees? I doubt it.

In many subjects there is little correlation between A-level grades and degree performance. University tutors know that some students, despite a clean sweep of As, will achieve only middling second- class honours. They will follow their three-year degree courses, absorbing more knowledge, but their critical abilities will hardly advance beyond the competent standard they showed at A-level.

Others who have scored only ordinary A-level grades - perhaps not doing as well as their teachers expected - will turn out to be among the highest achievers: far more talented than those who had much better A-level results.

Even if there were a good correlation between A-level performance and degree performance, excessive reliance on A-

level grades would be questionable. Before candidates sit the exams, teachers estimate the grades they think their pupils should achieve. More than half the time they are at least two grades out, in either direction. Does that mean teachers are misguided about their pupils' abilities, or that many A-level candidates simply perform much better or worse on the day?

It is more likely that the business of simultaneously examining thousands of students leads to minor misjudgements. The distance between a B and a C may be marginal. But for prospective university students, it may be the difference between getting to the institution of their choice, and retakes.

Universities are well aware of that fact. They are more inclined to accept pupils whom they have interviewed, and who they believe will benefit from their particular course or institution - even if that teenager fails to make the anticipated grades. Even better, universities are making great efforts to sign up entrants, particularly mature students, whose strong commitment to study is more important than their paper qualifications.

In the end, many departments have to draw a line, rejecting applicants who have not quite made the grades. The value of this system is that it provides a real hurdle. Any A-level candidate who wants to go on to higher education knows that he or she must jump the right height. This is a powerful motivator.

But many admissions tutors, working frenetically through that process this week, must feel uncomfortable. The expansion of higher education, with the Government aiming by the end of the decade to increase participation to a third of 18-year-olds, may appear to ease the problem. Even if candidates are not offered the places of their choice, they will get in somewhere. But employers already put a high premium on graduates from the 'first division' institutions. Competition for those places will become fiercer, and the line between 'success' and 'failure' will become even finer.

Is there a solution? The present system has many advantages. Some on the political right would prefer to end central admissions and leave universities to handle all their own applications, which would be made separately to each university or college. But that would not necessarily lead universities to rely less on A-level grades for their selection procedures. In any case, the central system and its associated clearing procedure is administratively convenient for applicants and institutions.

And in principle, at least, A-level grades are an objective measure of merit. The examiner knows nothing of the candidate's background or the school attended - whereas the admissions tutor might, unwittingly, favour confident applicants from selective and private schools over less forthcoming but possibly brighter pupils from state schools.

Universities should resist pressure to depend too much on A-level grades, and rely more on what they know of each candidate. Employers look at much more than paper performance. They look, so far as an interview allows, at the candidate's overall fitness for the job. Similarly, those who decide which pupils to admit to their universities might look more at the person's fitness for that course and that institution. The incentive to obtain good A-level grades will remain: they are of value in themselves. But they are not the only indicator of future performance.