July 28, 2008

A-Level Exams Should Start at Easter, Says Admissions Chief

By Richard Garner Education Editor

Bringing exams forward to Easter would restore the credibility of A-levels by allowing the brightest pupils to be selected for university places, according to Cambridge University's head of admissions.

Geoff Parks said A-levels should be completed by the end of the Easter term to allow all youngsters to get their results before they apply to university, rather than force admissions officers to rely on predicted grades.

The move would represent the most significant shake-up of the school year since it was established in the Victorian era, when the term pattern was devised so children could help with the harvesting.

Dr Parks argues that, if the plan was agreed, admissions tutors could look at the actual marks received by each candidate to ensure the youngsters with the most potential were selected for the most popular courses now that one in four scripts is awarded an A-grade pass.

The reform has also been recommended by the head of the Government's working group on university admissions, Professor Steven Schwartz, who will present the plan in a report to ministers this week.

Dr Parks said the new system would help Cambridge offer places to youngsters with potential from poorly performing schools following criticism from the former Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, that it is only paying "lip service" to widening participation among state school pupils.

"You could look at the results and say, for instance, that - from a school with a good record - you should be getting a high A-grade pass ... whereas if you come from a school with a poor record you have done wonderfully well to get three As," he said.

At present, Cambridge receives 14,000 applications a year for just 3,400 places, so once foreign applicants (totalling just over 3,000) are removed from the equation, the university turns away abobut 7,500 candidates with three A-grade passes a year.

Martin Ward, the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and Colleges, backed the plan, but said: "We would be a bit worried that there would be less time to prepare students for examinations."

The percentage of state school students accepted by Cambridge has dropped for the past two years. One explanation, Dr Parks said, was that fees mean students are now less likely to travel far from home to take up university places By contrast, youngsters from private boarding schools have greater means to live away from home.

*Children from the poorest homes are far more likely to end up in the worst performing secondary schools, according to new research published today. A study by Bristol University shows that - even if children from poor homes went to academically successful primary schools - they are still more likely to find themselves in an under- performing secondary school.

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