State school pupils will “struggle” to access top universities after government A-level reform

State schools will “struggle” to get to grips with university admission changes driven by the government’s A-level reforms – pushing them further behind their private school peers, a forum heard today.

Some universities have overhauled their admission process after the government’s new linear A-level reforms.

Higher education institutions relied on AS-levels to offer places, however they are no longer compulsory and where they are taken are separate to overall A-level grades.

Schools Week has previously reported how the University of Cambridge was “forced” to bring back entry tests after the government changes.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum today, Geoff Hurst, a former director of market strategy at exam board AQA and now education consultant, said: “Independent schools are making the point, which feels uncomfortable, that they are going to fare better through this reform.

“Compared to state schools, they will get to grips [with the university admission changes] much quicker. It’s a concern, and it brings into question how universities approach this. The state sector is going to struggle.”

Fellow panellist Steve Watts, chair of the admission forum at the University of Cambridge, said the university was “pretty determinedly against the reforms”.

He described them as a “blow to schools” with teachers not able to offer the information needed to advise their students about university choices. “For us, an important indicator of school potential is now missing.”

The university has since brought back its own “common format” admission tests, but Watts added: “We’re also horribly aware now that these tests have been untested themselves.”

He said the university was worried the assessments route would be a return to the original Cambridge entrance exam, which he said “wasn’t access friendly”.

“There was lot of pressure on students to be of a certain kind. We changed to using public examinations because that was better for access.”

And Watts said he has now noticed a “serious problem with transition” between the skills A-levels promote and those required by top universities.

“Is there now something of a lack of fit between materials we are offering, and gets good results, and that required by universities like ourselves?”

He urged universities to “think about their own position”. “The way my university is doing that is thinking about how we can help schools offer some of that deeper understanding, with several different systems.”

They include offering extra curriculum opportunities in schools and online courses. The university is also offering pre-sessional help, particularly with maths-based subjects.

Exams reform was the topic of today’s Westminster Education Forum. In an earlier debate, Roger Murphy, a former board member at Pearson and Ofqual standards advisory group, said schools face two or three years of turbulence in the exam system while reforms bed in.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, also said the changes – including a new 1-9 GCSE grading system – is putting teaching and learning at risk.

But Dr Michelle Meadows, executive director for strategy, risk and research at Ofqual, said details of the regulator’s new “metrics” system will be unveiled in the Autumn.

She said the system will help check consistency of marking across exam boards, and be used by the regulator to point out where it needs to investigate further and ultimately help hold exam boards to account.

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  1. ‘…schools face two or three years of turbulence in the exam system while reforms bed in.’ And in these two or three years of turbulence, pupils are taking exams which will determine their futures. These guinea pigs will have every right to be angry at the hasty pace of untried and untested exams forced upon them.
    Just when the English exam system needed someone with a cool and cautious head to study what is happening in other countries (overwhelmingly graduation at 18, often by multiple routes) and bring in consensual exam reform over a number of years, England had a Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who wanted things done quickly. A cynic might say it was to build a reputation for decisive action prior to a leadership bid, but I couldn’t possibly comment.