Government exam plan wins mixed response from universities

March 26, 1999

University admissions tutors have given a cautious welcome to government plans to broaden the sixth-form curriculum. But some institutions warn that depth must not be sacrificed to breadth, writes Phil Baty.

Under the plans, sixth-formers will be encouraged to take a wider mixture of subjects, bridging both academic and vocational courses, and embracing both arts and humanities.

Students will be encouraged to take up to five of the new AS levels - worth half an A level - in the first year of study. General National Vocational Qualifications will be given greater parity with A levels to allow the study of both.

An "over-arching certificate", still being developed, may eventually record and reward partial achievements in bite-sized chunks of qualifications.

Much of the success of the new system depends on the attitude of university admissions tutors, who set their own entry criteria. Both traditional and new universities have already expressed some doubts about the proposal.

Sue Stobbs, director of admissions at Cambridge University, said she would expect applicants under the new system to have studied four or five subjects in the first year of sixth form, in both arts and sciences.

Cambridge particularly welcoms plans to maintain linear A levels and toughen modular A levels (considered easier to pass than linear exams) with a new "synoptic" test, designed to ensure students understand the syllabus as a whole.

But Ms Stobbs warned that too much of a mix-and-match approach by students would not be appropriate for Cambridge. Students choosing to sit vocational qualifications and larger numbers of AS levels without the depth associated with full A levels might miss out on a Cambridge education, she added.

Gavin Brown, head of admissions at the University of East London, warned that: "The flip-side of the greater breadth could be less depth. Some courses require specific knowledge and students may have a problem if this is diluted."

Steve Kendall of Luton University's admissions department welcomed the changes, noting that the reforms allowed for specialism in the second year.

But institutions appear to be reluctant to offer places solely on the basis of AS-level results. Ms Stobbs said Cambridge would want to see the final results of full A levels before making an unconditional offer.

UEL's Mr Brown agreed that he would not want to make offers on the basis of AS-level scores. "Some students only gather pace during the second year of study, as they become more focused," he said.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said it would encourage all its members "to attach appropriate weight" to the new qualifications when making offers for admission.

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