Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A* at A-level: Time for "fair" access?

It was always going to happen. I couldn't believe that the last Government, with its overt social-engineering agenda, introduced it. On the eve of its first award, its likely impact is beginning to dawn. The introduction of the A* at A-level was always going to be divisive. After all, to allow top sixth formers to demonstrate that they are better than most of the 25% of their peers who get A grades, is fundamentally divisive.

To achieve an A* at A-level the candidate has to score over 90% on the A2 [Upper Sixth - Y13] component of the course - almost universally recognised to be the more demanding part of A-level. Thus, the introduction of the A* should make a positive contribution to identifying our Nation's academic elite and thus provide a mechanism by which our most prestigious universities can award places on the basis of merit.

To date, universities have been very cautious about using the A* as part of their offers. This is understandable given that many admissions tutors are primarily concerned with filling their quotas and thus are nervous about the impact of any change to the A-level system lest it flood them with successful candidates, or scare good applicants away. For the 2010 entry only Cambridge, Bristol, Imperial and UCL of the Russell Group universities gave offers that included the A*. The standard offer at Cambridge was A*AA, with the occasional maverick Cambridge admission tutor asking for A*A*A of borderline candidates.

However, going forward, one would expect universities to embrace the A* as a differentiating qualification for their most prestigious, oversubscribed courses. Imperial are reported to be intending to make some A*A*A offers next year, but wider picture is that many top universities are that many are reluctant to use the A*.

Sir Martin Harris, director of the government's Office for Fair Access, said the new grade could strengthen private schools' hold on elite universities.
"Grade inflation in university entry requirements and the fact that A-level A* grades are disproportionately achieved in the independent and selective schools does increase the risk that the brightest disadvantaged young people may be squeezed out of the applicant pool for the most selective universities. Universities need to be aware of this when considering fair access."
[Quoted in Fears for state pupils as top universities insist on A* at A-level Guardian 02/08/2010]
This begs the whole question as to what is, and what is not, "fair access" to university. Whilst it might be "fair" to favour a university applicant from a Maintained sector school over an equally qualified one from an Independent School, I am not sure that it will ever be "fair" to take a less qualified one. At some point we have to recognise that the best are the best regardless of the sector in which they were educated.

If universities are going to persist in social engineering, they need to be open about so doing and their criteria for discriminating between candidates from different educational backgrounds need to be transparent and published. In time, there should be a degree of suspicion over any university that rejects the use of the A* as a discriminator between candidates.

Given that most institutions do not interview candidates and most say that they pay little regard to either the personal statement or the reference, then predicted or actual grades are the most important, if not sole, criterion for selection or rejection. If universities reject good candidates from Independent schools in favour of weaker candidates from the Maintained sector, I can foresee the situation where unsuccessful applicants with top A-level grades make legal challenges against those institutions which reject them. Indeed, I am not sure that we will ever get "fair access" to university until we have "blind" UCAS applications where the educational and social background of the applicant are not known to the institution considering the form.

The introduction of the A* at A-level is an opportunity to move towards an admission system that is based on merit - let us hope that the universities embrace it fully.


  1. Just a couple of comments:
    The criteria for an A* at A-level are not quite as you have stated. The candidate must achieve an A grade overall (i.e. over 80% on average across the AS and A2 content) but must achieve over 90% (not 85%) over the A2 part of the course.

    See this AQA update for details:

    In addition Warwick University this year also asked for an A* if you wanted to study Mathematics and only had AS FM

    I agree with you that the A* is a good opportunity to move back to a system where exam entry is focused on merit, my concern however is with the variability of the marking often seen will we actually see the best candidates getting the A*'s!

  2. Andy, thanks for this. I have corrected the figure in the article for clarity.

    My concern is that it will not be the candidates with the most flair or the greatest understanding that get the A*, but the most careful, which no doubt bodes well for the accountancy profession.

  3. I agree, as a Mathematician (and a Maths HoD) I even have concerns about the impact on Mathematics. Some of the best Mathematicians may miss out on their A*'s not because they are not capable of answering the questions but sometimes because they approach questions in a way that is not what the examiner expected!

    What we need is not higher passmarks, but more rigorous and harder exams which better differentiate between candidates. I teach both the A-level and IB courses, and the IB has a much more sensible alignment with the average grade for the IB Higher Level Maths course being a 4 (out of 7 - with 7 being the highest), but with the current A-level Maths specification we have 45% of all candidates currently getting an A grade!?! To me this doesn't tell us that we need to add a grade boundary above the 80% but that the exams are on average too easy for the candidates...

    However this is balanced with the need for inclusion and the desire to get more students to study Mathematics, hence the recent articles saying that any changes to the modular system are likely to make the course harder, which may reduce the number of students looking to study the course.

    At least in Mathematics we have the advantage of having a Further Mathematics course, but for many of the best students even this is not really demanding enough (and for them we still retain the STEP examinations!)

    Do we really want an examination system to rewards precision over flair? Even for a subject like Mathematics, I would rather see exams which challenge students to think for themselves rather than regurgitate taught techniques...

    Unless the situation improves I can see more and more Independent schools moving away from the A-level system towards alternatives like the IB and Pre-U.

  4. I agree with all of the comments above and the original article.

    What this indicates to me is that judging 'merit' or 'ability' is highly subjective. It clearly differs between subjects (I am a Head of Geography in an HMC school) and selection based on 'merit' or 'ability' clearly also varies significantly not only between institutions but also within them, even between admissions tutors in the same subject at the same university! This appears to be leading (inexorably?) to the greater use of tests by individual institutions to select students based on what they regard as the best measures of ability. Very often this is not A Levels (or their equivalent) at all. We are seeing this already with the creeping return of the Oxbridge 'exam' and the plethora of other tests such as LNAT, UKCAT, BMAT etc!

    I wonder how long it will be before all top universities, and a much wider range of course types, all have their own non A Level entry criteria and we evolve our own version of the American universities' SAT Reasoning Test?