EXCLUSIVE: Cambridge university secret briefing over new admissions tests

The University of Cambridge held a secret briefing for selected teachers this week over its plans to bring back entrance tests for many subjects, but will not publicise details of its decision until March.

Schools Week has learned that university officials met the group of hand-picked teachers in London on Tuesday.

A source said they had been “confidentially briefed” on the university’s plans to bring back admission exams this year – first revealed by this newspaper last April.

Many pupils applying to the university will need to sit the tests in schools from September before the deadline for 2017 entry applications in October. The test scores will then be used to invite applicants for interview.

But the university does not plan to provide teachers with a full outline of its plans for the assessments until March.

Headteacher Allan Foulds, who is also president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said briefing a small group of teachers is a standard model of engagement.

He added: “We would expect the group to be inclusive of the diverse group of schools we have. We would want to ensure that school leaders are briefed on what the university is doing.”

A well-placed source told Schools Week the briefing was part of the university’s plan to “put informed teachers at the heart” of its changes.

Selected teachers were said to have been chosen so university officials could hear concerns and feedback before providing others teachers with a broad outline of their plans next month.

A university spokesperson confirmed in a statement that the group had met “to discuss the Collegiate University’s developing plans to adapt its admissions system” and representatives attended “from a range of institutions”.

Adding: “We are considering feedback and will announce any changes to our admissions system in due course.”

He refused to be drawn on any questions regarding the selection of teachers at the group, or details of the test.

The university currently uses scores calculated from students’ performance in their AS-levels to decide which applicants are invited to interview.

Under new reforms brought in to toughen up the qualifications, AS exams became optional in September and scores no longer contribute to the overall A-level.

Documents presented at a senior tutors’ committee, and previously seen by Schools Week, revealed how the university thought it was being forced into changing its “well-tried system”.

Schools Week understands the new exams will vary by subject, but several subjects are planning a three-hour written test. It is understood the entrance tests will be run as a pilot for two years.

Not all faculties are believed to support the changes. The student union has also previously raised concerns.

Many staff were reluctant to speak when contacted by Schools Week, but one said colleges are ensuring the tests will not disadvantage applicants.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the social mobility thinktank the Sutton Trust, told Schools Week: “We would be concerned at the reintroduction of entrance tests at Cambridge, as this could present a disadvantage for low and middle income students.”

The University of Oxford already
uses subject-specific aptitude tests for many courses, taken in schools prior to interview.

Sir Peter said the introduction of tests at Cambridge could further expand the thriving market in private tuition.

“Those parents who can afford additional tuition and resources will be able to give their children a significant advantage over those who cannot.”

The trust is due to publish a report that will reveal further findings on admission tests at universities in the coming weeks.

Update, February 2: The university of Cambridge released finalised details of its plans to bring back written assessments. The full details can be read here:

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