A-level ‘train crash’ means more university admissions exams

Headteacher warns that institutions will otherwise be forced to choose between students with ‘ragtag mixed bag’ of qualifications

March 11, 2016
Train crashing off tracks, The Lone Ranger, 2013
Source: Jerry Bruckheimer Films/Kobal

A leading headteacher has predicted “rapid growth” in the number of selective universities setting their own entrance exams because of an impending “train crash” in school qualifications.

Peter Hamilton, headmaster of The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire, said that other higher education institutions were likely to follow the University of Cambridge in introducing written admissions tests as a result of the decoupling of A levels and AS levels.

AS levels have previously given universities a guide to students’ performance in Year 12, but Mr Hamilton said that their likely demise would force admissions tutors to rely on internal school assessments “of varying quality” when making offers of places, adding to concerns over the reliability of marking and comparability of exam board standards.

“There’s a train crash waiting to happen with this lottery that we are going into; the decoupling of A levels will help not one jot,” Mr Hamilton told an event on admissions organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum. “There will be mistakes made because there is unreliability built into the system.”

Mr Hamilton added that universities would be forced to choose from among applicants holding a “ragtag mixed bag” of qualifications because some would still be following modular A levels of the existing style while others would be taking linear courses assessed at the end of two years; and a further group might hold other qualifications such as the Pre-U diploma.

Each of these would “have different impacts on [students’] learning styles”, the conference heard. “You’re not going to be sure exactly what type of student you are going to get,” Mr Hamilton said.

His prediction, therefore, was that "there is going to be rapid growth in selective universities who will set their own entrance tests…if you look at the scenario I’ve been painting, what other choice might you have if you are selecting rather than recruiting?”

Mr Hamilton also criticised the sharp increase in the number of unconditional offers being made by universities, arguing that it made them look “desperate” and was likely to make students “sit back and twiddle their thumbs”.


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