Open response to Dr Mike Sewell, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges

There are a number of reasons why I was disappointed and disheartened to read Dr Sewell’s letter entitled ‘Cambridge’s Position On The New AS Levels’, but I shan’t bore anyone with the intricacies of every detail that irked.  I did, however, wholeheartedly agree with Andrew Halls’ response and will, therefore, avoid rehearsing those points, which he made so eloquently.

My issue with Dr Sewell’s letter lies not in the detail, the small print if you will, of what was written, as much of that was actually quite reassuring, but in the headline, the bold and underlined sound-bite that is in my opinion almost entirely self-serving and puts all schools in every quarter in an almost impossible position.  Cambridge wants schools to deliver AS levels so that they may more easily choose the best candidates, regardless of the financial and educational cost.  I can quite understand Cambridge’s frustration with the coalition’s intervention in a system that was not perfect but was being reasonably well managed by schools and universities. But unless there is a complete political about turn in the next six months these changes are going ahead, and for Cambridge to switch the pressure from government and onto the very institutions who work so hard to provide the next generation of able and engaged university students seems perverse.

Dr Sewell knows full well that it is impractical and costly to deliver three or four AS levels followed by the full A level in the hybrid system and even more so in the almost completely linear system that follows.  We also know that Cambridge currently offers places to highly academic students who already follow linear courses such as the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge’s own CIE Pre U exams, which, according to their own literature, “better prepare students for degree-level studies” and are “progressive and coherent” as a linear model.  When it comes to studying Maths at Cambridge, decisions regarding final acceptance are partially based on their own STEP examination, which is, they say, statistically a better indicator of future performance than AS.  This exam is taken at the end of two years of study, not one.

If Cambridge (and possibly others) wish to campaign to re-reform or undo proposed changes to A levels to help provide the stability, robustness and rigour we all crave then I am with Dr Sewell all the way. If there is a desire to renew the debate on university offers being made after results are known then I am very open to try and implement positive change. But to get nowhere with government and therefore switch the focus of attention and pressure to schools is, in my opinion, unacceptable.  At the end of his letter, Dr Sewell asks us to be unhesitating in contacting him with any questions.  He may find that it is not just I who have quite a few.

By Stephen Lehec, Head Master, Kingston Grammar School