A levels and university admissions: the right reform
Every few years there is an attempt to reform university admissions. There is a chorus of support for ‘post qualifications admission’ (PQA) or some variant of it. Committees are set up, working groups work, politicians weigh-in with wholehearted support. And it ends in failure.
It fails because it won’t work. The idea sounds simple. Students apply to universities after they have their A level results. Universities make decisions on real, not predicted, grades. The system is no longer distorted by inaccurate grade predictions. Students who do better than expected go to better universities. What stops this?
On the last two occasions it has failed because no-one would make the adjustments required to give time for a system of PQA to work. Universities would not delay the start of the academic year and schools and examination bodies would not bring forward A levels. There would simply not be enough time to run a complex admissions system in the two or three weeks after A level results came out.
If this was all that was stopping PQA, or its variants, it might be worth one last try. But the problems for university admissions are deeper and, if properly understood, would not be solved by PQA. Moreover, the problems are not just with university admissions but with A levels themselves. What is needed, and needed urgently, is a bolder approach which would transform learning, assessment, and university admissions.
The problem as presented is simple. Universities make decisions on predictions of what applicants will achieve in their A levels. These predictions are often wrong. The consequence, it is suggested, is that too many students end up in the ‘wrong’ university, by which it is usually meant that their actual A level results would have qualified them for a ‘better’ (i.e. more competitive) university. Students from less advantaged backgrounds are particularly disadvantaged.
There is a real problem here, so why won’t PQA solve it? Because no-one actually agrees that it is safe for many applicants simply to be admitted on the basis of their actual A level results. Universities are encouraged, indeed now effectively required, by government and regulators, to operate ‘contextual admissions’. This means that an applicant’s A level grades are considered in context: in the context of their school, their background, and other relevant factors. Disadvantaged students with lower grades, can be admitted because their grades understate their potential and actual ability.
There is nothing wrong with contextual admissions. Indeed, universities have been practicing these kinds of systems for years and the University of Birmingham was a proud pioneer of the approach. Done well and sensitively, though, contextual admissions take time, and simple systems of PQA don’t allow for this, or do so only in the most mechanistic way.
But if you look more deeply, the need for contextual admissions points to a more profound problem, one might even say an injustice. A levels are a point-in-time assessment which reflect, even embody, educational and social advantage, as well as actual learning and achievement. They have been demonstrated to undervalue potential in many young people. As a result, they don’t work as a fair or effective university entrance test.
Is there an alternative? There is: separate university admissions processes from assessing students’ work in the sixth form (years 12 and 13), introduce a Standardized Assessment Test (SAT) for university admission, and replace A levels with a diploma system.
Other countries use SATs for university admission. They are not proof against coaching, but they seek to identify potential. Students could sit their SAT in, say, April, and universities could run their admissions processes from May or June, using additional information and contextual data as appropriate. A properly-constructed SAT does not require students to be prepared or crammed. It would not disrupt but could help transform learning in the sixth-form.
The sixth-form curriculum could be restructured within a diploma framework. Pupils could still specialize, but the curriculum could be broader, the methods of assessment more diverse, and there would be more time for learning and less focus on assessment and preparing for assessment.
Pupil understanding would be greater, their range of skills and competence richer, and teachers would be empowered. Pupils’ subject understanding could be complemented as they simultaneously develop other skills. We would have a system which retained the depth that distinguishes A levels at their best with the breadth whose absence many employers and universities, have bemoaned. Moreover, we need not invent the wheel. Much of the groundwork for this was laid down in the Tomlinson Review of 14-19 qualifications in 2004.
This is the moment where we could transform learning, get university admissions right, and build a system that will again enable us to lead the world. As we seek to build a post-Covid future, now is the time to start.
*A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Times on 18.01.21.