EXCLUSIVE: Exam overhauls ‘force’ Cambridge to plan entry tests

– University consults on bringing back own entrance test after 29 years
– ‘What I hear is a lot more work for me. It makes me really frustrated’

The University of Cambridge is gathering views on plans to bring back entrance tests – 29 years after abandoning them.

If the proposal goes ahead, all school pupils applying to the university would need to sit the test.

Documents presented at a senior tutors’ committee (STC) in March, seen by Schools Week, state that the university is “being forced” into changing its “well-tried system” of using AS-levels to assess which applicants get invited for interview.

The paper says that GCSEs “will not give us a reliable measure” due to their ongoing reform and that “schools’ predictions of grades will be next to useless”.

University departments have now been asked for their views on a “main proposal” to reintroduce tests from the 2016-17 admissions round.

When contacted by Schools Week, the university sought to distance itself from any suggestion these were firm plans.

Mike Sewell, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges, said in a statement: “In the light of the recent A-level reforms, the university is in the process of considering all options available so that we may continue meeting our goal of admitting the best and brightest students from all backgrounds.”

Other options are believed to include increasing its standard offer grades or upping the significance of interviews.

But he added: “We are clear that the best way of achieving this is for the government
to retain public examinations at the end of year 12.”

Mr Sewell sent a letter to schools and sixth forms in November “strongly” urging them to continue entering students for AS-level exams. However documents seen by Schools Week state that the reformed AS-levels will be “of very limited use” under the current admissions process.

At present, the university uses unified mark scheme (UMS) scores calculated from students’ performance in their AS-levels to decide which applicants are invited to interview.

But under coalition reforms planned to “toughen up” the qualifications, AS exams will be optional for cohorts starting this September and scores will no longer contribute to the overall A-level.

The Cambridge proposals says this leaves them without an effective mechanism for comparing applicants.

The Labour party has pledged to halt the changes and retain AS-levels.

The university refused to respond when asked by Schools Week if it would drop the proposals should Labour get into power.

Oxford University already uses subject-specific aptitude tests. Most of its admission tests are organised by the Admissions Testing Service.

A spokeswoman for the university said it has tests for virtually all its subjects so would not be affected by the A-level reforms

The disclosure has been met with concern by school leaders.


Eddie Playfair
Eddie Playfair

Eddie Playfair (pictured), principal of Newham Sixth Form College, London, said more entrance tests could give bigger college providers, who have more resources, an advantage over school sixth forms.

“There’s a danger students in smaller sixth forms don’t have the same resources and might lose out. It could be one more barrier in the way.”

He also suggested that other universities may face the same problem. “The question now, is who will follow?

“If this is a trend, then we could end up with all types of different exams with different criteria. It starts to undermine A-levels as a university entrance requirement.”

Sarah Elgie, an English teacher at Heathcote School, in Chingford, London, who works with more able students added: “I teach a huge amount of exam prep as it is. When I hear this, what I hear is a lot more work for me.

“It makes me really frustrated, but I understand it and I expect other universities will have to do this if they don’t have a common marker.”

The proposed test would be free for schools and would be based on the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), designed and administered by the Admissions Testing Service.

According to its website, it is part of Cambridge English Language Assessment, a not-for-profit department of the University of Cambridge.

A paper circulating among university departments, and seen by Schools Week, reveals trial data suggesting that if TSA had been used in the admission rounds for the past two years then 7 per cent of successful applicants would not have been called for interview.

That equates to about 210 current students, the equivalent of an entire year group in a large state school.


In the next few weeks, the public will turn their attention to what the political parties are offering for the future. The school community will prick its ears with regards to the changes it can expect to endure.

So far, the picture is one of continuity in education with added austerity. Unlike previous years, schools are not being singled out for extra funds. There will be no new premiums or fancy buildings. Protected funding is the best offer.

More pressing than future glittering prizes, however, are the ongoing implementation issues of exam reform.

Ofqual, the exam regulator, are working hard to achieve a smooth transition to the new ‘more rigorous’ GCSEs and A levels. But they cannot control the knock-on impacts, one of which is highlighted by Cambridge’s active consideration of a universal entrance exam.

It is quite extraordinary that a top university is so concerned about the reliability of GCSEs that its own tests might be necessary.

There’s also a serious question about access. One teacher responsible for sixth formers noted the stark difference between her pupils those from private schools. “I can’t see that it will be a step forward for access and diversity,” she wrote.

On the other hand, a senior lecturer at Cambridge said that he felt a common entrance exam would remove some bias from an admissions process otherwise reliant on personal statements and predicted grades.

Having spent time speaking with many admissions tutors at both Oxford and Cambridge, there is no doubt every admittance decision is sweated and changes will not be entered into lightly. Let’s hope a solution to suit everyone can be found.



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  1. Chemray

    They accept applications from students overseas or doing IB qualifications who wouldn’t have AS grades so why should it be different for UK students. Surely a teacher reference can supply the information they need if the student doesn’t have AS grades. Surely if is not possible to discriminate students based on the curriculum their school offers. If they have an entrance paper then everyone should sit it but it will be almost impossible for it not to be leaked out surely unless everyone sits it on the same day. It is just another knock at UK teachers who are fantastic and very capable of writing a true reference for a student without having to base it on AS grades.

  2. Rafiki

    The removal of the coupled AS exam is the biggest hindrance to social mobility in modern times. The reliability of the AS as an indicator of future performance has been shown by robust research carried out at Cambridge and at Bristol. That it has been de-coupled on a nostalgic whim has two effects: first, a solid indicator of academic ability is lost, thus limiting the opportunities for the number of students who really start to shine with higher level work. Secondly, the AS system allowed students a degree of flexibility with their subject choices – either the scientist who wasn’t sure whic three sujbects to take from say,Further Maths, Maths, Physics and Chemistry; or the student who isn’t totally sure which subject to take… The AS level allowed some scope for flexibility – by allowing working at a higher level before making choices. The loss of this has caused problems: the massive funding cuts for third year sixth students means that students are at a loss if they don’t ‘get it right’ straight away.