Could the government be about to sabotage its own attempts to achieve a more socially diverse entry to top universities?
Some universities think so. The culprit: the proposed new A* grade which comes in with the reformed A-levels from this September.
The warning comes from the 1994 Group, which represents universities like Durham, Exeter, Warwick and York.
In a report into the impact of school qualification reforms on university admissions, the 1994 Group warns that the A* "could retard efforts to make the undergraduate population in research-intensive universities more socially inclusive".
Why so? After all, the A* grade is being introduced largely in response to complaints from universities who find it difficult to distinguish between candidates who present themselves with a clutch of A grades at A-level.
The current proposal is that the new A* grade would be awarded to those getting marks of 90% or more in at least two of their A2 units.
Around 26,000 A-level candidates currently achieve 3 grade As. It is estimated that under the new system a much smaller number, around 3,000, will gain three A*s, with around 11,000 gaining two A*s.
So the A* will achieve one desired effect: it will narrow the pool of candidates with the very top grades. This will make it easier for elite universities to discriminate between applicants.
However it may also suggest to some candidates that they have no chance at the most selective universities if they have not achieved a string of A*s. They may think they have even less chance of getting in than under the current system and so decide not even to apply.
This does not matter if you accept that A-level performance is the only factor that matters in university admissions. Yet many believe this is not the case.
Will top universities take more pupils from private schools?
After all, we know that school and home background affect educational achievement and, quite rightly, universities wish to select applicants with the greatest potential as well as the best prior achievement.
And this is where a potentially difficult issue arises: the best A-level grades already go disproportionately to those from independent schools. Will that difference be magnified by the A*?
In evidence to the Commons Schools Select Committee, the chairman of the 1994 group - Professor Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University - raised the concern that some schools will be more likely to coach students for the A*.
He suggested, for example, that further education colleges may not have the same level of staff or facilities to prepare candidates for the particular approach that will be needed to turn an A grade into an A*.
Professor Smith asked MPs: "which schools do you think might decide it is their job to coach people to make sure that they get the A*?"
The implication is that selective schools, both state grammar and independent schools, are more likely to target the A* because they have a higher proportion of very able pupils and because they see achieving high levels of entry to elite universities as a core part of what they do.
But what about the very bright student at a lower-achieving comprehensive or FE college? Without focused tuition, they may still make the cut when the discriminator is determined by A grades but will they still make it at A*?
Professor Smith told MPs that it would be "a very unfortunate outcome" if in a few years universities are saying "Oh gosh, a lot of the A*s have gone to the independent school sector".
Well, is there any evidence for this? The government has done some statistical modelling of the possible effects of the A* based on last summer's results.
It estimates that 3,050 candidates would have achieved three grade A*s. Of these 1,150 (almost 39%) would have come from independent schools.
This is a higher proportion than the percentage of independent school pupils achieving grade three As at present (just over 34%), suggesting there is a risk that the A* could lead to even greater domination by the independent schools of admissions to top universities.
In view of the difficulty the elite universities already face in achieving wider participation, this could set back the government's wider participation agenda.
As the Sutton Trust has shown, access to the top universities is already heavily skewed towards a very small number of highly selective, and mostly fee-charging, schools. The decision to go ahead with the A* grade is now past the point of return. It was for reasons like this that certain recent Secretaries of State for Education resisted the introduction of the A*.
The government may wish to undertake further modelling of the A*. For example, there is still some debate over whether it should be awarded simply on the arithmetical basis of those getting 90% or better or whether it should be based on the qualitative judgement of examiners.
The latter approach would be more subjective but it may do more to identify candidates who are really operating at a higher intellectual level. This approach might possibly be less susceptible to extra coaching by schools.
Time is running out for a decision on this. But it could be worth investigating before the government finds that its A-level reforms have shot a gaping hole in their widening participation policy.
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