It's not too early to show hand in admissions game

October 15, 1999

Universities may not have considered entry criteria for 2002, but schools need guidance now to prepare pupils, says John Dunford

Schoolteachers have universally welcomed the greater opportunity for breadth in sixth-form studies brought by the government's reform of A levels. But schools and colleges need an early indication of university attitudes towards the new examinations.

Headteachers are producing curriculum structures for September 2000 that will incorporate the reformulated AS level, the six-module GNVQ and the reforms to the key skills qualifications. By Christmas 1999, all schools and colleges must have completed this planning.

Students entering university in 2002 are likely to have studied a broader curriculum in the sixth form, but it will be 18 months before universities write their prospectuses for 2002 entry and two years before they begin to make admissions decisions. Headteachers cannot delay major curriculum decisions and urgently need answers to these questions:

How will the universities use the new AS grades that will appear on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application forms of most students?

Will admissions tutors change their pattern of offers to give credit for greater breadth?

If applicants offer a fourth subject, in addition to the traditional three A levels, will contrasting subjects be viewed as preferable to complementary subjects?

Will credit be given for attainment of level 3 in key skills?

Which university departments will ask for passes in the proposed World Class tests?

The existing AS examination has not been a success and has had a low take-up throughout the country. But the new AS is likely to be taken by students in almost all schools and colleges, few of which will retain the linear route to A level. More schools and colleges are doing modular A-level courses and, because the AS represents the first three modules of the new A level, it will become normal practice for sixth-formers to take the AS examination at the end of the lower sixth. They can then decide whether to continue with all their courses or drop a subject to focus on the others. Some will start new subjects and take them to AS level in the upper sixth.

There is little doubt that as many as 40 per cent of A-level pupils may take four subjects in the lower sixth but few are likely to take five. Alongside these, students will be preparing for assessments in the key skills of communication, application of number and information technology.

Schools have advised 16-year-olds that university admissions tutors look for quality, rather than quantity, in an applicant's qualifications. We hope and believe that in future, admissions tutors will give greater credit for breadth, either by including AS grades in offers or by lowering required grades in recognition of achievements in AS and key skills. The new UCAS tariff also presents admissions tutors with an opportunity to recognise breadth by using the points score instead of, or in addition to, required grades in specific subjects. Since the points score is likely to include achievements in AS, GNVQ and key skills, this could be significant in encouraging breadth.

Many vice-chancellors support a broader sixth-form curriculum, but schools are also looking to admissions tutors for early guidance. It would be helpful for headteachers and those planning curriculum structures for September 2000 to have an indication before Christmas 1999 of the attitude likely to be taken towards the new qualifications, particularly from universities in high demand. The Secondary Heads Association is prepared to pass on university entry information to its members and, through the Joint Associations Curriculum Group, to a wider audience.

This term, schools and colleges are considering whether to increase the number of timetable blocks to enable students to take more subjects, and how key skills and other aspects of breadth can be incorporated into the revised structure. Such decisions have major implications for the whole school and for the curriculum of younger pupils too. Changes will not be made unless schools have the fullest possible information.

If university admissions tutors, who have traditionally asked their applicants to obtain AAB or BBC, continue to make offers on the same basis, then all the government's post-16 reforms and the aspirations of those who have striven for a broader post-16 curriculum will come to naught. We hope that universities take an enlightened view of the reforms and translate these views into the offers that they make to candidates. Although September 2002 seems a long way off, it is not too soon to communicate this information to schools. John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and chair of the Joint Associations Curriculum Group of headteachers and college principals.

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