The government has put forward a progressive scheme to alter the timing of A-level exams in order to allow pupils to apply to university using the grades they have actually achieved, rather than relying on ‘predicted grades’ as they do under the current system. Proponents of the scheme argue that it would result in a much fairer allocation of university places, particularly giving a better chance to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However there are also some concerns about the impact the plans would have on sixth form education.
On the surface the plan seems to make a great deal of sense – with our higher education system in turmoil following the introduction of raised tuition fees and the ever increasing demand for places, why not at least simplify the application procedure by selecting candidates on the basis of their actual achievements rather than vague and potentially biased predictions?
Startling evidence shows that a much higher proportion of students from state schools and the most disadvantaged backgrounds actually out-perform the grades they are predicted, compared to private school pupils from better-off areas who are more likely to meet or miss their predicted achievements. However, university places are allocated on the basis of predictions, not concrete grades, and the short ‘adjustment’ window during which pupils have the opportunity to try and find a place at a more prestigious university on the basis of better-than-expected grades is far too short to provide a practical opportunity for alteration.
Even George Turnbull, of the examinations division of qualifications watchdog Ofqual, claims that the ‘transfer window’ leaves too “little room for manoeuvre”. Universities Minister David Willetts agreed that the system must be “re-engineered” to allow places to be allocated on the basis of actual achievement rather than “speculative applications”.
If it is truly the case that enabling students to apply after receiving their results would provide a fairer system to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the scheme must be applauded, but there might also be an argument for simply adjusting the system of grade predictions so that theirs are brought into line with those of other students instead. Changing the timeline of the entire academic year seems a rather dramatic solution to a problem that might surely be more simply tackled at the source, by new guidelines and boundaries for grade predictions and closer monitoring and checking of the accuracy of teachers’ suggestions.
Changing the entire academic system to bring A-level examinations early enough in the year to allow time for the results to be processed before applying to university would create many difficult problems as well as solving them. For a start it would leave a yawning gap in the second and third terms of the final A-level year when sixth form students would have nothing further to study, creating huge problems for schools who would have to invent pointless syllabus fillers or allow effective truancy.
Furthermore there would be a discrepancy between the dates on which students would receive their results depending on examination boards, subjects and retakes, creating an unfair advantage for those who would be able to apply earlier than others.
These problems might be solved in several ways – it could, for instance, be extremely useful to transform the final A-level term into an opportunity for apprenticeships or work experience to be undertaken, but such a dramatic change would take a great deal of planning and organisation. In the meantime it seems facetious not to ask why universities don’t simply use AS-level results as a fair indication of a student’s academic level.
At this stage the government is merely considering proposing the changes as part of the upcoming white paper due to be published in the months to come, but a great deal more thought and debate would have to be put into fine-tuning the scheme if it were eventually to be put into practice.