Uni call to make A-levels tougher

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Ministers are facing mounting pressure to reform the school exam system as university chiefs warne that A-levels are “failing” to prepare teenagers to sit a degree.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Ministers are facing mounting pressure to reform the school exam system as university chiefs warne that A-levels are “failing” to prepare teenagers to sit a degree.

More than 250,000 students across the country will receive their A-level results today - but calls are growing for the qualification to be replaced with a “diploma” to help employers and universities spot the brightest pupils.

Last night, a survey of university admissions officers revealed that 42pc think the rise in the number of sixth-formers getting top grades was because the exams were “getting easier”.


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One in three officers warned that teenagers were not being prepared for the rigours of university study.

The survey follows calls from Ken Boston, the government's exam regulator, and David Eastwood, the former UEA chief who is set to take charge of higher education in England, for A-levels and GCSEs to be reformed.

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Prof Eastwood told the EDP last month that he wanted to see teenagers sit fewer but tougher exams at school and the introduction of new A* or A** grades to distinguish between the most able students.

But senior teachers said they were disappointed that the criticism of the exam system had emerged just as students were to receive their results.

Last night, Rosalie Monbiot, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for children's services, warned that schools will abandon the system in favour of the International Baccalaureate unless ministers press ahead with reform.

“I'm not decrying the work of the children, it's not their fault,” she said.

“The standard of teaching is much better and they are really giving it a go.

“They are really dedicated and ought to be congratulated for their hard work. The problem is at the other end. If it [the exam system] isn't fit for purpose then it has to be looked at by the government.”

Julia Drury, director of the Kett Sixth Form Centre, which includes Blyth-Jex, Heartsease and Sprowston high schools, in Norwich said: “Young people work very hard and it always seems to me a real shame that instead of congratulating them for having done well, the press are saying how worthless their qualifications are.”

She said aspects of changes to the exam six years ago as part of the government's Curriculum 2000 reforms had made higher grades more accessible, because students could retake modules rather than results being dictated by performance in a single exam.

“Young people are still having to manage the same amount of material, arguably more, because the content in each module often adds up to much more than the content of an old style A-level,” she added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “The A-level remains an extremely difficult school leaving exam for the vast majority of youngsters.”

The survey of 53 admissions officers came from the ACS group of international schools, which teaches pupils the International Baccalaureate diploma - a qualification which is often seen as a broader and more demanding course than A-levels.

It found 29pc of admissions officers thought A-levels prepared students “quite badly” for university. A further 4pc claimed it prepared students “very badly”.

Just over a third - 37pc - said A-levels prepared students for academic degree courses “quite well' but only 2pc said it prepared them “very well”.

When asked about the International Baccalaureate, 29pc of admissions officers said the diploma prepared students “very well' for university.

A spokeswoman for the UEA said: “It is only right that there should be a regular review of the way we measure achievement of prospective students. But A-levels remain the established standard and we celebrate the success of this year's students. Our role now is to add experience and value through their degree programmes.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of teachers' union NASUWT, added: “The publication of the A-level results is invariably accompanied by the now annual ritual of carping and criticism.”

But a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: “The A-level is a tried, tested and trusted qualification.

“Standards in our schools are rising year on year and we are committed to ensuring that every young person reaches their full potential, with opportunities to learn in ways that motivate and stretch, that develop interests and provide routes to success.'

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