A-level ‘turbulence’ may lead to more university entrance exams

The Telegraph, 30/09/14, rising numbers of universities will be forced to introduce their own admissions exams because of chaos caused by a shake-up of A-levels, according to headmasters.

More students may be required to sit aptitude tests as part of the selection process amid confusion over a reform of the traditional school leaving exam in 2017, it was claimed.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) admitted that the shift would favour independent school pupils who are often better prepared for entrance exams than their peers in the state system.

Under the reforms, new A-level courses will phased in over two years and the balance of coursework and written exams will be changed. AS-levels - currently sat at the end of the first 12-months of the two-year course - will also be abolished in their current form.

But HMC, which represents 260 leading fee-paying schools, said the sheer scale of the "turbulence" would make it difficult for universities to accurately select candidates.

Chris Ramsey, head of The King's School, Chester, said there was a "concern that unless universities and schools are discussing this issue pretty urgently, then admissions in 2017 are going to be very, very problematic".

Under the changes, new A-level courses in subjects such as English, science and history will be taught from September next year, with first exams being sat in 2017. They are designed to be more rigorous, with less coursework and a greater emphasis on end-of-course exams.

Other subjects such as maths, geography and foreign languages will be introduced a year later.

At the same time, AS-levels will become a standalone qualification.

It means that sixth-formers applying in 2017 are likely to be taking exams in a combination of new and old “legacy” A-levels, it was claimed. The move also casts doubt over whether universities will use the AS as part of the selection process.

Peter Hamilton, headmaster of Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Hertfordshire, said universities may be forced to set their own entrance exams to differentiate between pupils.

Speaking at HMC's annual conference in south Wales, he said it was a “complex scenario” and there was a question about whether all universities were on top of all the changes.

“They really do need to inform themselves and discuss pretty swiftly if we're going to avoid some trouble,” he said.

“What we wouldn't want to see is a greater proliferation of universities setting their own entrance tests just because it is such a mish-mash out there.”

He said: “The guarantee is you can look forward to a couple of years of turbulence as everything beds down and this is not just the independent sector, it's country-wide.”

Mr Hamilton added: “Because of the potential turbulence out there I don't think anyone would want to see universities, or even more universities, insisting on people sitting their own entrance tests."

Currently, most universities use teachers’ predicted A-level grades alongside GCSE results and AS-level scores when making provisional offers of places to students.

But data from UCAS shows around 70 universities and colleges, including several leading Russell Group institutions, also run their own admissions tests in at least one subject.

Oxford uses 10 entrance exams to dictate entry to subjects, such as medicine, classics, maths, law, physics and philosophy, politics and economics (PPE).

Cambridge employs them for courses including including computer science, economics, engineering and natural sciences.

Mr Ramsey said that independent schools would have the resources to prepare their pupils for more university admissions tests, whereas the state sector may not.

It needs to be clear for all students in private and state schools what universities demand as an entrance requirement before students start their A-levels next year, he added.

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