Leader: No time to lose for fairer selection

February 13, 2004

If the final report by Mike Tomlinson achieves nothing else, the addition of two grades at the top of A level  would make the selection of students for the most prestigious universities easier and fairer. There will be plenty of obstacles in the way of his plans for a baccalaureate-style diploma, but the grading changes need not wait for the wholesale reorganisation he is set to recommend.

An eventual proposal for finer grading would relate to a qualification that may or may not be identical to the current A level, and that is unlikely to be introduced before the end of the decade. The powerful business lobby has already set its face against tinkering with the "gold standard", and the natural conservatism of governments in this area will have been reinforced by the experience of Curriculum 2000. Crucially, too, it remains to be seen whether the universities will put their theoretical support for an overarching diploma into practice.

With law and medicine already turning to their own admissions tests, the full Tomlinson menu may soon be overtaken by events. The selection problems caused by continuing growth in top grades will not wait until 2012 for a solution. A quarter of entries now reach grade A, and the band covers more marks than any other. Schools have always resisted "devaluing" the A grade, but it is already devalued - and the failure of the system to identify real high-fliers is placing more importance than they deserve on schools' references and students' personal statements.

Extra A-level grades would not be the last word in fair admissions, but it looks increasingly unlikely that the Schwartz report will produce an alternative panacea. Even the post-qualification system that Steven Schwartz favours is now openly rejected by a growing number of universities. The Office for Fair Access will put pressure on admissions officers to further broaden universities' intakes, but that will make transparent selection methods more important still. Tomlinson's proposal would be a step in that direction - and one that should be taken without delay.

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