Schools 'let down brightest pupils by failing to use super A-levels'
By John Clare, Education Editor
(Filed: 03/06/2004) Telegraph

Schools have only themselves to blame if their brightest A-level pupils are not being given the chance to distinguish themselves from the rest, according to a report published yesterday by Cambridge University.

Cambridge, which, like half a dozen other universities, is forced to reject thousands of applicants predicted to achieve straight As, said it regretted that A-levels were not "more rigorous and demanding".

However, able candidates could perfectly well show what they were capable of by taking Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs), the "super A-levels" that were introduced by the Government four years ago but have been largely shunned by both state and independent schools.

Last year, when 750,000 A-levels were taken and more than 160,000 were awarded a grade A, the number of AEA entries was just 7,000.

The Government says they were designed to be taken by the top 10 per cent of pupils, which suggests the number ought to have been closer to 70,000.

Cambridge was responding to the recommendations of the Schwartz report on "fair admissions" to higher education.

The university said that admissions to the most competitive courses would undoubtedly be fairer if A-levels were better at assessing some of the aptitudes and skills needed for successful study. These included critical thinking, problem solving, essay writing and extended argumentation.

"Only for mathematics, where we are able to ask applicants to take the more demanding Step examinations, are we able to make offers to all those whom we judge have the potential to flourish on our course," the university said.

"More widespread - and ideally universal - taking of Advanced Extension Awards by high-achieving students would potentially provide similar fine-grained differentiation for admissions in other subjects (as well as being of substantial educational value to the students concerned)."

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said AEAs, which are available in 17 subjects and consist of three-hour written exams, were designed to be accessible to all able pupils, wherever they attended school or college, and required no additional teaching or resources.

They tested the ability of candidates to think critically and creatively and offered them the opportunity to demonstrate greater depth of understanding than that required at A-level.

By helping to differentiate between the most able, AEAs aimed to obviate the need for universities to develop their own entry tests.

Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar, which helped pilot the exam, said the school's results had been "wildly erratic".

Some of his brightest pupils had not done well.

"I have no problem with the principle - we need a specialist exam for the most able - but I'm not convinced by the practice," he said.

Others pointed out that the AEA failure rate was 50 per cent and that success in the exam was not reflected in national school league tables, both factors that have discouraged schools from entering.

However, Cambridge's clear signal could force them to think again.

Other stories from the Telegraph on the same subject:
14 August 2003: The remarkable rise and rise of the A-level pass rate
11 August 2003: Tories vow to restore faith in exams