Cambridge University may bring back entry exam as too many acing A-levels

The university has found it difficult to work out who the cleverest applicants are because so many of them get A* and A grades

Ian Johnston
Sunday 20 September 2015 19:04 BST

Cambridge University is considering reintroducing an entrance exam because too many applicants get top marks in their A-levels, in a move that has raised concerns that state school pupils would be put at a disadvantage.

The university, recently ranked the third-best in the world, has found it difficult to work out who the cleverest applicants are because so many of them get A* and A grades. The test would be used to establish which pupils would be interviewed for a place.

Some schools in the private sector are turning away from A-levels, with increasing numbers of private pupils sitting alternative exams, such as the International Baccalaureate or the Pre U, instead.

Barbara Sahakian, professor of experimental psychiatry at Cambridge, told The Sunday Times: “What people are concerned about is whether the A-level exam results still mean quite the same thing as they used to mean. There are a lot of students getting very high grades but not all of them would have got those grades in the past, so it is hard to discriminate between candidates.”

There are concerns that state school pupils could be put at a disadvantage if the test is introduced because privately educated children would be more likely to receive tutoring specifically designed to pass it.

University documents leaked to the newspaper revealed that many dons were concerned about the introduction of an entrance exam.

And Sir Richard Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge and president of Wolfson College, warned that older students applying for a place would be put “at a severe disadvantage”.

Under the proposals, applicants would have 45 minutes to write an essay and would also take a “thinking skills” test and a “language aptitude” test. It is likely that pupils in Year 13 would take the exam in November.

Cambridge abolished its entrance exam in 1986 and since then the number of students from state schools has increased from about half to more than 60 per cent. The university has a target figure for state-educated undergraduates of just under 70 per cent.

Professor Sahakian admitted getting a place at Cambridge was harder for pupils from state schools because they tended not to have the same level of confidence.

A university spokesman said: “The university is considering all options but has made no decisions. We already use admissions tests for some subjects and the option of introducing wider testing is part of discussions about how to adapt to [A-level reforms].

“Whatever decision is taken, all applicants will continue to be assessed holistically.”

Figures released last month showed there had been a seven per cent rise in private school pupils taking the International Baccalaureate, a 10 per cent rise in the numbers taking the Pre U – which was developed when independent school heads felt that A-levels lacked rigour – and a 31 per cent increase in those taking a BTEC vocational qualification.

However Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said the growth was not a criticism of A-levels with “the vast majority” taking the traditional exam.

The Department for Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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