The Russell Group of leading universities said recently that its members regard some A-level subject combinations more highly than others.
Schools secretary Ed Balls has hinted that the new diplomas being introduced from September might eventually replace A-levels. And research-intensive universities in the 1994 Group report that over a third of their courses are unlikely to accept students with diplomas.
Meanwhile, Cambridge University is about to get its alternative to A-levels, the Pre-U, accredited. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is adding a new A* grade for students achieving over 90 per cent in their papers. And a growing number of state schools and colleges are introducing the International Baccalaureate, as a broader alternative to A-levels.
Behind these stories lie potentially competing aims. On the one hand, the leading universities think it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between good and great students, when so many have straight As. On the other, the Government wants more bright state school students, particularly from poorer backgrounds, to go to university. All of which means that it is vital that teachers foster aspirations, and are honest with students about the real value of different qualifications.
After all, the universities are pretty clear. "Students must not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them as well as other subjects to excel on their chosen course," says Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group's director general.
Without candour, the goal of getting 40 per cent of adults to higher education standard – a key aim of Lord Leitch's landmark review of skills – will become more elusive. Equally, the Government's drive to improve the qualifications of 16- to 18-year-olds through compulsory education or training will become a question of enforcement rather than opportunity. And while the Government wants more state pupils going to university, the A* grade is likely to benefit independent school pupils, unless state pupils perform better at exams. Even with the existing three A requirement, the Sutton Trust charity estimates that 3,000 state school students meeting this standard don't apply or aren't accepted at the best universities.
This is why the advice given to young people about their options must be at the heart of government policy. Such guidance is especially important with the new diplomas and apprenticeships. The Education and Skills Bill places a legal duty on schools and local authorities to offer impartial careers guidance to students. This should ensure that teachers don't steer young people away from diplomas or vocational options, or promote school sixth forms over colleges to bring extra revenue to the school. But three complementary measures would improve opportunities for state pupils. First, every secondary school should cater properly for its gifted and talented students.
As many as 300 secondary schools have no such programme. But those that have one should go further: every school should use the university links that Gordon Brown recommends to develop initiatives such as summer schools, university lectures for bright pupils and better teacher-tutor links. And careers advisers and teachers must give the right subject advice.
Not all A-levels are of equal value, and students with the ability to go to university should be encouraged to do the subjects that they need. Where students would benefit from diplomas, apprenticeships or the IB, they should be encouraged to do them, even if they are not offered in the school sixth form. But the Government should market diplomas more honestly too: they should recognise explicitly that engineering and hair and beauty are different subjects likely to be taken to different levels.
Both are good qualifications, but without clarity about their benefits, students and parents will fail to see their value. Ucas should ensure that its points system gives proper weight to top achievers. Ministers should give schools more incentive to offer tougher or less popular subjects – like physics or languages – by raising their value in the league tables. Universities should use bursary funds more productively.
The Office for Fair Access recently reported that 12,000 bursaries, worth up to £1,000 each, for low-income students went unclaimed. Schools should advise students of their existence. But some of that money might be better targeted at school pupils, at the age of 13 or 14, when they need to raise their sights, and used to fund summer schools or university visits. Leaving it later may be too late. With changing exam expectations – including the A* and diplomas starting in September – such action is more vital than ever. Without it, too many bright pupils will be denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
The writer is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett and is editing a Social Market Foundation book on 14-19 education, to be published shortly
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