Are A-levels a fair way to measure student ability?

Sonia Sodha (The fake meritocracy of A-level grades is rotten anyway – universities don’t need them, 18 August) may be right when she says “this is predicated on the crazy idea that we need to avoid AAA students studying with ABB students … at all costs”. But I am not sure on what evidence this assertion is based; there is a simpler explanation for universities using A-level grades for admission. When faced with excess demand for a course, it is essential to establish a method for deciding which applicants receive offers. Interviews might work for some, admissions tests for others, but filtering applicants by their A-levels is the cheapest way. No one suggests that only those with AAA can become doctors, but this is the price of entry to medical school, which matches supply and demand.

This system is well understood and is deemed, by most, fair. Of course, fair can mean different things to different people, and to allocate students randomly, as Sodha suggests, would generate calls of “unfair and foul” from those who think that seeking advantage through private education, for example, should result in access to certain institutions. It is paradoxical that randomly allocating students so that each has the same chance of studying at any one university as another would be seen as unfair.

The current system has its weaknesses, and addressing them will require a change of mindset with respect to fairness. If the A-level fiasco accelerates this conversation, at least some good will have come of it.
Adrian Darnell
Durham

I couldn’t agree more with Sonia Sodha that overreliance on A-levels helps to increase inequality. In 1971, the Open University started teaching adults over 21 and did not require any qualifications. In the following 36 years that I was an OU tutor, I was often humbled by the intelligence of these adult learners.

In the mid-1970s I taught courses for the continuing-education centres of two universities. Again, no qualifications were necessary and they served as access courses for degree study. Then I worked for a north-eastern university in the 1980s, when miners and others who had been made redundant entered degree courses with minimal qualifications and prospered. I then moved to a college of education that was proud of taking students with minimum grades and empowering them to get good degrees through the quality of teaching and student support.

Over that period many of these openings were shuttered, even though higher education expanded significantly. The OU has become forbiddingly expensive and tutor contact has been replaced by distance-learning technology. Access courses became regimented. University continuing-education departments became professional skills faculties. Colleges of education became universities, determined to improve their status by requiring A-level grades as high as they could get away with. Education used to be, at least in part, developmental; now it is instrumental and status-ridden.
Sheila Cross
Northallerton, North Yorkshire

Although I think the A-level grading system this year was unfair, I don’t agree with just awarding teacher-assessed grades, which inflates pass rates.

I am studying for my A-levels and am halfway through. Next year I have to sit exams having missed a substantial amount of teaching this year, so I expect to do less well than I had hoped. As many students are deferring university places, next year I will be fighting for a place against some students who have inflated results. How is this fair? Why didn’t exam boards ask for copies of mock exams and samples of students’ work and mark these?
Mary Poll
Wymondham, Norfolk

A-level exams at least are relatively objective and specific to the student concerned. As a teacher and examiner for more than 40 years, I have less confidence in coursework. In a practically based subject, my own institution frequently ended up with lower submitted coursework grades than the final overall grade. Why? With able students, we played it by the book. Elsewhere, students doing supposedly strictly controlled in-house coursework “just happened” to do a similar exercise the week before the real thing. Their coursework grades were often significantly higher than their final grade. If you want an approximately level playing field, A-level exams are probably the best we can manage, unless institutions switch to the International Baccalaureate.
Rob Symonds
Bingham, Nottinghamshire

One simple issue being missed is that the government panicked and cancelled exams too early. Schools were still open for essential workers, and lessons could have continued for years 11 and 13 at a minimum on Zoom, with disadvantaged pupils having IT equipment provided. Exams could have been taken in empty classrooms. Young people would have then been able to avoid the trauma of the last few months.
Gary Nethercott
Woodbridge, Suffolk

To illustrate Sonia Sodha’s thesis, I offer the example of my wife, who left school at 15 without O-levels and ended up as a scholar of international repute. Or my own experience of failing A-levels in 1961, but obtaining a degree in 2010. The idea that exams taken at 18 should be the only means of assessing ability is nonsense.
Owen Wells
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

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