In the vacuum that has existed since the rejection of the Tomlinson report on 14-to-19 education the time is ripe for new initiatives on university admissions. If Labour is returned - and quite possibly even if it is not - some form of postqualifications system looks to be on the way. But little progress has been made on a method of identifying the top candidates, let alone those whose potential is greater than their A-level results would suggest.
Today's unveiling of an Anglo-Australian rival to the aptitude tests used by US universities (page 2) may not provide the answer, but there are a number of points in its favour. The division of the test into sections covering the different skills required for arts and science courses takes some account of the more specialist nature of British degrees. And, while candidates can and will be coached for any test, the practice materials developed for this one appear to minimise the advantages of expensive cramming. The launch comes at such an early stage that the test does not even have a name, so there is plenty of time for universities to influence its development.
What the exam boards behind the venture will have to demonstrate is that their test is more successful than SATs at identifying potential missed by A level. In a previous UK trial funded by the Sutton Trust, there was too little variation between successful candidates at A level and in SATs to justify adding to sixthformers' already excessive exam burden. But, with specialist admissions tests beginning to proliferate, a single test that could make this claim might actually ease the load on candidates for higher education. The only way to be sure is for the next government to run the more extensive trial that the Sutton Trust has championed. No decision has been taken by the Whitehall working group charged with implementing a PQA system, but a comparison of results from the new test and the recently revised SATs would be worth more than a thousand hours of speculation and debate.