Does the new A* at A-level make the grade?

By Angela Harrison
Education correspondent, BBC News

image captionPupils at independent schools were more likely to get an A*

Did the new A* grade do what it was intended to do? Opinion is divided.

For the tens of thousands of students celebrating climbing to this new height, much praise is due.

With only one-in-12 A-level papers (8%) getting the grade, they are set apart.

The grade was brought in to challenge the brightest students, give them a chance to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge - and to help universities choose the best students.

Critics had complained A-levels were not hard enough.

But has the A* done its job? Opinions are divided - even on what the job was.

Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul's School in west London, is very critical of the A*, even though many of his pupils boast a string of them.

"I think it is an outrage and a disgrace," he said.

"The idea of an A* is fine. Universities need an exam to identify the top 15% of the cohort - unfortunately the A* is not the way to do it."

Dr Stephen dismisses the grade as a "statistical, mathematical device" and says the "fatal flaw" is that no new material was involved.

Pupils have to score at least 90% on their harder A2 papers - taken in the second year of study - and get an A overall to be awarded an A*. All candidates get the same questions.

"It will destroy creativity, imagination and independent thought because people will be terrified of dropping a mark," he added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, disagrees.

He said there was "no question" the exams were harder this year - and that teachers and pupils rose to the challenge.

"The questions were harder, the way in which the questions were framed. Over the last 10 years, people who have done A-levels, the A2 questions would take them through A, B, C, D, E," he said.

"It would sort of take you through the answer, whereas now the question just comes at you, and you've got to do the analysis. It's required a different way of teaching."

Gillian Low, president of the Girls' School Association, said: "There was stretch there and some demanding questions.

"We did welcome the A*. It is important to give that stretch and challenge to the brightest."

Magic bullet

Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of the exams regulator Ofqual, says the A* "did what it said on the tin - and did it fairly and accurately".

"The purpose of the A* was to demonstrate exceptional achievement at the most difficult part of the A-level. I think it has achieved that," she said.

"If you ask me whether it was the magic bullet to answer all questions about university selection - it was never intended to do that."

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, one of three main exam boards in England, said: "I think there is a myth to slay here - the A-level is not meant to get harder.

"What was introduced was some more complex questions that enabled the really, really strong students to show how much stronger they could perform within the A grade."

The new format for the A-level, Ofqual explains, was intended to stretch the brightest while not disadvantaging the "C" candidate.

But will universities find it easier to choose the best students because of the A*?

The jury might be out on that for some time.

Only a dozen or so universities built the A* into their admissions systems for this year.

Those which chose not to include the new grade say it is because they rely heavily on teachers' predictions of pupils' grades when making offers - and they were not sure how reliable the A* would be in the early days.

Indeed, many students with strings of A*s are among those disappointed not to get a university place of their choice this year.

But universities are paying close attention to the grade.

Oxford University - unlike Cambridge - did not make offers based on the A* and says it will not do so for the next round of applications.

But the director of undergraduate admissions, Mike Nicholson, says the university will look closely at the results of those it has admitted for this year - and those it did not - to see what lessons it can learn.

"The next stage will be to look at how the distribution of A* grades correlates with Oxford's own selection procedures," he said.

"We will also over a number of years be looking at how candidates with A* grades perform in their university exams."

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said she expected to see an increase in the number of courses requiring at least one A*.

"The A* grade - alongside very helpful recent reforms such as access to AS-level unit grades and the extended project - is a welcome addition to the tool kit that admissions tutors can choose to use to help them select students with the greatest potential," she said.

Some fear the introduction of the A* will make it harder for pupils from disadvantaged homes to get to university.

Just 14% of A-level exam entries this year were from independent schools - but private schools took 30% of all the A*s awarded.

Entries from comprehensive schools made up 43% of the total but just 30% of the A*s.

At some independent schools, as many as 40 and 50% of A-levels were passed at A*.

Conveyor belt

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The introduction of A* at A-level has introduced a way for the Russell Group of universities of filtering candidates for selection without the rounded interview processes which have enabled many candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to those universities."

And TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Whatever its intentions, the introduction of the A* grade will do even more to favour the conveyor belt from private education to top universities."

Dr Piatt said more students from low-income groups were now going to Russell Group universities but members remained concerned about the under-representation of students from comprehensives among the highest-achieving A-level candidates.

"Ensuring students from low-income backgrounds fulfil their potential at school is by far and away the most effective way of increasing their chances of going to a leading university," she said.

Schools minister Nick Gibb spoke up for the grade: "The A* grade represents genuine top-level attainment. The most competitive universities have long wanted to differentiate between top-performing students. The previous government introduced the A* to help them do this. It is now down to universities to decide how they use it."

The coalition government has already committed itself to making the exams system "more rigorous".

Education Secretary Michael Gove has said he wants A-levels to "revive the art of deep thought".

He has asked Ofqual to make sure the exams withstand international comparison, and wants universities and employers to be more involved in their design and content.

The government will set out its plans in a White Paper in the autumn.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.