Universities blamed for exam fiasco

November 1, 2002

MPs are to investigate the relative worth of AS and A2 levels after the chief of the exam board at the centre of this summer's exam standards fiasco blamed universities for getting the balance wrong.

Ron McLone, chief executive of the OCR board, fired a broadside at universities during an evidence session with the education and skills select committee on Monday. OCR caused havoc in the university admissions process when it regraded hundreds of A-level and AS-level papers at the eleventh hour.

The Curriculum 2000 changes mean that an A level is now made up of two papers, the AS and the A2. But Dr McLone said that it was wrong to think of the AS and A2 as having 50:50 weighting since AS levels were supposed to be easier, and the AS plus the A2s were harder than the old A level.

Asked whether there was pressure to adopt the 50:50 weighting from universities, Dr McLone said: "I think there was a concern within the universities about what on earth an AS level was supposed to be. If it wasn't half an A level, then what was it? It must have had a final effect on the 50:50 decision."

Asked whether the universities did not understand the system, he replied:

"We need a lot more transparency from everybody."

He said: "If a full A level were worth a pound, we would have preferred it for the AS level to be worth 40 pence and an A2 worth 60 pence, because that would have been recognition that an AS level was not half an A level. But we have to apply it 50:50 and it doesn't stack up."

Dr McLone said it was up to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to sort out the mess. He was backed by the other English exam board chief executives, the AQA board's Kathleen Tattersall and Edexcel boss John Kerr.

An adviser to Universities UK said that the weighting had been imposed on universities by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service with government support.

In autumn 1999, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now UUK) consulted on the implications of the new Curriculum 2000 for university admissions.

It accepted that an AS level would be regarded as equivalent to half an A level only after it was already government policy and added the caveat:

"Few conditional offers will be made on the basis of AS levels alone."

Admissions tutors also denied that universities had pushed for a 50:50 weighting.

Jacqueline Henshaw, head of undergraduate recruitment and admissions at Manchester University, said that Manchester had warned in its response to the CVCP consultation that it did not consider the AS level to be worth half an A2 level.

The QCA has embarked on major reform of A and AS-level standards following the report by former chief school inspector Mike Tomlinson looking at this summer's A-level regrading fiasco.

The three exam board chiefs called for a truly independent QCA to oversee A-level standards. The reformed body should be answerable to parliament rather than to ministers, they said.

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