Mary Dejevsky: 'A' grades that money can buy

Even in the United States, it is harder for monied parents to fast-track their children from primary school to the elite universities than it is here

Friday 20 August 2010 00:00 BST

There is something at once revelatory and dishonest about the A* grade that made its debut in the English exam system yesterday. The dishonesty reflects the attempt to square a circle: to compensate for a conspicuous defect in the grading system, without offending anyone or disturbing the status quo.

In typically New British fashion, those who dreamt it up wanted to have things both ways. They wanted to address complaints from university admissions officers that they could not identify the most able applicants, while protecting the inflated pride of pupils, parents and teachers and allowing schools to maintain their place in the league tables.

So they rejected the obvious and honest solution – which was to push all the grades downwards, preserving the A for the very best – and chose instead to divide, or supplement, the A. Nor did they revive a fixed percentage distribution for each grade, which would have pre-empted new allegations of "dumbing down" in future.

The reasons were obvious. Any other solution would have disappointed those who expected A grades and risked undermining morale. Redefining an A might be seen as unjust, and potentially confusing for universities and employers judging one year's school-leavers against another's. Above all, though, it would have called into question the boast that educational achievement has been rising. True, the numbers obtaining top grades at A level have risen each year for almost three decades, but that does not necessarily reflect higher levels of attainment, if the requirements and the grades themselves have moved.

To this extent, dividing the A keeps the cat in the bag. On paper, this year's A is the same as last year's and the same as the year before's, even if it might not be the same as an A in 1985. But it has also let it out. The introduction of the A* exposes a clear gap between the standards at state schools and independent schools that the capacious A grade of old had concealed.

Now you may quibble with my use of the term "standards". We may be talking opportunities here, with private schools having the resources to expand their curriculum to the more demanding A* requirements in a way that many state schools cannot. But the fact remains: the division of the A grade has revealed a truth that the single A grade had conveniently concealed. Pupils at independent schools in England are far more likely to meet the requirements of the top universities than are those educated entirely at state expense. They took 30 per cent of the A* grades awarded, although they accounted for only 14 per cent of entries. Neither comprehensive schools nor sixth-form colleges came close.

The implications are unambiguous. However hard Oxford and Cambridge try to attract applicants from state schools – and they do try very hard indeed – in this respect, their task has suddenly become harder. If, as the analysis suggests, independent school pupils gravitate towards the top of the A grade and those from state schools towards the bottom, a university in a position to demand one or more A* grades could find itself admitting proportionately fewer state pupils than before. In retrospect, this might seem to vindicate the decision of some universities not to recognise the new grade, but to wait and see how the A* settles down.

For the top universities not to recognise the new grade might be one solution, at least until more state schools have had time to catch up. But why should admissions officers deny themselves a tool they had demanded for so long? They wanted A level grades to provide a better gauge of an applicant's attainment. Well, now their wish has been granted, but the implications are, to say the least, embarrassing for this country's education system – perhaps too embarrassing to be the last word on who is accepted for a particular course and who is not.

Now there will be those who maintain that the distribution of A* grades as between state and independent schools reveals nothing that was not known before. They will say that such a disparity is only to be expected, given the superior facilities at many independent schools, the excellence of the teachers and, above all, the privileged backgrounds of many of the pupils. Yet the A* not only makes these advantages explicit, it also spells out a quite particular message: if you pay for your children's education, you can give them an academic advantage. Time was when wealth, influence and the right school tie might, by themselves, have secured an Oxbridge place, or a leg-up in life generally. But the distribution of the first A* grades shows that, in England's version of a meritocracy, parents can effectively buy the next generation's success.

In this day and age, the attainment gap that exists between independent and state schools in England is a disgrace in itself, and should be of profound concern to a government worried about social mobility. But the extent to which it is possible in Britain to buy a superior school education is almost unique in the developed world. Most countries have some form of private education, but the differential, in levels of fees and academic achievement, is nothing like as wide as it is here.

Even in the United States, that home of the untrammelled market, it is harder for monied parents to fast-track their children from primary school to the elite universities than it is here. This is in part because there is no real equivalent of our public schools, but also because university admission there depends not only on academic qualifications, but on the SAT score, the result of a standardised, machine-marked test. It is hotly debated how much tutoring and cultural differences may influence that score, but there is no doubt that the SAT smoothes out some of the – wide – disparities between schools.

In Britain, even in 2010, the shadow of school is far harder to escape. How hard was graphically demonstrated by the distribution of A* grades, which offers new proof of the academic advantage money can buy. If the Government really wants to do something about social mobility, it is here, with this glaring and debilitating discrepancy in school standards, where it should start.

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