Leader: Hope for fairer system

September 17, 2004

Everyone is agreed (again) that a post-qualifications applications system would be fairer all round than the present model. A committee has been established (again) to address the practical implications. The difference this time is that the issue has public and political resonance.

The Education Secretary has thrown his weight behind a change and given his most senior higher education official the task of bringing it about. For many universities, the issue is a distraction: their main concern is to attract more students, rather than choosing between them, and they could do without the disruption involved in concentrating the process. But when half of all schools' grade predictions are wrong, the Schwartz review is justified in demanding firmer evidence on which to base students' choices and universities' offers. For the most oversubscribed courses, such as medicine, schools know that only the highest prediction will do, although the standard offer may be more modest. Parental pressure can have undue influence on teachers' judgements.

A new system must not sacrifice the ability to consider applications in the round for the sake of speed. That may mean some preparatory work taking place before the grades are published, especially where interviews are involved. But with some vice-chancellors finally prepared to contemplate a later start to the academic year, new technology speeding up examining and changes in prospect in school terms, a fairer system is at last a realistic possibility.

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