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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May 2005, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Cambridge seeks harder A-levels
Geoff Parks
Geoff Parks: Wants tougher questions in A-levels
The head of admissions at Cambridge University is advocating compulsory tougher questions for A-level students.

The government plans to include more challenging questions to differentiate between the best students.

Cambridge's Dr Geoff Parks says if these are optional, bright but diffident students might do themselves a disservice by not attempting them.

But he says the real solution to the problem is to implement the Tomlinson plans for a comprehensive diploma.


In a personal presentation prepared for a conference at Brighton College, Dr Parks argues that A-levels should go.

He says changes to A-levels have resulted in greater "accessibility", with students given more opportunities to show their ability and fewer, if any, "sink or swim" questions.

The exams are fairer and have meant higher levels of achievement.

But what has been lost is the opportunity for the most able students to develop and demonstrate originality, creativity, insight, clarity of thought and analysis, extended arguments and problem-solving.

Also lost: the ability to differentiate the exceptional students from the good.

These are all things universities want from the qualifications, he says.

His proposed solution is simple: "Implement the Tomlinson reforms in full."

Extra grades

The inquiry into 14 to 19 learning in England by the former head of Ofsted, Sir Mike Tomlinson, advocated the absorption of existing qualifications into a diploma structure.

At the advanced level, this would include elements of the little-used Advanced Extension Awards, offering extra questions to challenge those of higher ability.

These might offer new A+ and A++ grades on top of the present A grade.

The government's response has included proposing to have harder, Advanced Extension Award-style questions but in separate sections at the end of A-level papers.

It has asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to consider the best way to do this.

Dr Parks says that if A-levels "have to stay", the Advanced Extension Award should be taken by all - replacing the existing "synoptic" unit, ranging across the subject, which everyone has to do.

Otherwise, he has said, "bright kids from less good schools" might lack the confidence to tackle them.

Students would get a letter grade for their overall achievement, plus a numerical grade to show how well they had done on this extension component.

The very best should therefore get A1. The "unconventional but brilliant" might get B1 while the "moderately talented slogger" might get A4.

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