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A* at A-level: benefit or menace?

30 June 2008

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas, on Bristol's response to the A* controversy.

I and one or two colleagues have publicly expressed reservations about the introduction of the A* grade at A-level from 2010. It is not clear to me whether the A* will identify people who will perform better at Bristol than people with an A. Nor is it clear on what basis schools will predict that their pupils will attain A* grades rather than As.

The new grade may prove useful in helping to identify some high fliers, but it may also increase the likelihood of other, equally outstanding applicants being overlooked. Some schools will be able to provide intensive preparation for their pupils; others will not. The effects of existing inequalities in educational provision may be exacerbated, and ensuring fair access may become even more difficult. Over time, the percentage of applicants gaining A* grades will almost certainly grow; eventually, there is likely to be demand for an A** grade.

However, I see no alternative to accepting that the A* grade will become a reality. Many schools and their pupils will, quite reasonably, set that grade as their objective. It would not be possible for the University to ignore the facts or applicants’ officially recognised achievements. After all, the University respects academic success.

I suggest that, pending further discussion, Bristol’s policy should be to accept the existence of the new grade and acknowledge the academic standard it seeks to represent. This is likely to be particularly relevant in subjects in which there is intense competition for places. At the same time, the University will continue to make a holistic assessment of applicants. This will include consideration of the educational context in which they have studied. Thus an applicant who does not achieve A* grades will not automatically be at a disadvantage. If there is sufficient evidence (for example, from the personal statement, the school’s reference and, in some subjects, the interview) that such an applicant has the academic ability, motivation and potential to succeed at Bristol, he or she will stand a good chance of being made an offer. Outstanding performance in relation to educational context will also continue to be relevant in assessing applicants’ qualities.

This is about considering people in the round; recognising that examination results, while very important, are not the only indicator of academic ability and potential; exercising judgments that are sensitive to individual circumstances; treating all applicants fairly, irrespective of their circumstances or background; and reducing the likelihood that the University will inadvertently cut itself off from some of the exceptional talent that exists right across society.

Does this sound balanced and sensible? It would be good to hear your views. Please feed them to Barry Taylor, our Director of Communications, who will collate any responses for me, the Pro Vice-Chancellors and the Registrar.

Many thanks.          


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