Pupils will need to get an A* for Cambridge
There is nothing like a row over Oxbridge admissions to get education news onto the newspaper front-pages.
It hardly seems to matter that, compared to other educational issues, admissions to Oxford and Cambridge affect a tiny proportion of young people.
But entry to top institutions will always attract interest if only because so many of us assume, probably quite wrongly, that every parent aspires to seeing their child at Oxbridge.
So it was no surprise that the media went overboard about this week's announcement that Cambridge colleges will expect future applicants to achieve at least one of the new A* grades, plus two A grades, at A-level.
Although only 4% of each age group achieves three grade As, this issue plays particularly on the anxieties of parents who pay increasingly expensive school fees in the hope of securing an Oxbridge place for their children.
Of course, not all independent schools make this their main aim but their websites and brochures reveal that access to Oxbridge is one of their unique selling points.
That explains why the independent schools are, to quote their spokesman, "delighted" by Cambridge's decision.
Coaching for an A*
They already have an excellent record on A grades, with 31% of independent school candidates achieving three grade As compared to just 10% across all types of state schools, selective and non-selective.
And they are clearly confident their students will do as well, if not better, with the A*, which requires students to achieve 90% in their A2 modules.
The A* is not merely an additional grade added to the top end of the existing exams. The A-levels themselves are changing in a number of ways, including the addition of more challenging questions.
According to the exam boards the new questions will try to tease out more independent thinking, offering fewer prompts about what is expected from candidates.
This will require different exam preparation for candidates. That in turn means some teachers will have to adapt their approach.
Like all exam reforms, teachers will soon learn how best to prepare students to achieve A* grades. That is why, after the first year or two, pass-rates tend to rise with most new exams. The A* is likely to be much the same.
So success at the A* may well depend, in the first few years at least, on the quality of the preparation provided to candidates.
Initially, this is likely to favour students at schools where class sizes are small, the ability range is narrowly clustered around the top end, and where teachers make it a priority to focus on getting students over the A/A* boundary.
It seems likely this will favour students in highly-selective state and independent schools. By contrast, the very bright student in a larger class of average ability pupils could well be disadvantaged.
For example, could you expect a teacher with a large, mixed-ability A-level group to focus as much on getting one or two students over the A/A* boundary as on helping students who are heading for a D to get up to a grade C?
In an ideal world, of course, teachers would be able to give the same individual attention to each student, but life is not always like that.
So, there is perhaps a strong case for exercising caution in the first few years of the A*.
Competition for places
That is why many assessment experts believe the universities should hold off from using the A* grade to determine admissions until the new grade has bedded down.
However, I am sure that Cambridge colleges, and the other universities that say they will use the A* in admissions from 2010, are not intending to disadvantage any group of students.
There is genuine concern that other ways of choosing between the over-supply of students with three A grades can be even more unfair, most notably the growing use of university entrance tests.
The use of interviews can also be unfair, since some schools devote a lot of time and expertise to coaching their students.
Admissions tutors do their best to see past the effects of coaching, but there are enough people who think coaching is worth paying for to support a small industry of private companies offering preparation for Oxbridge admissions interviews.
As for UCAS personal statements, well we all know that some schools, and some parents, help more than others with drafting and redrafting.
Then there are the references provided by schools. Again this is not a level playing field. Some schools, practised in getting bus-loads of students into Oxbridge each year, know just which notes to hit.
Others may be a little too enthusiastic. A senior Cambridge admissions figure told a conference recently that "games go on" with references.
For example, he mentioned a school that provided references for two of its pupils in the same year, enthusing that each was "the best Oxbridge candidate they had seen for many years".
These sorts of things can certainly deter some suitable students from even considering applying. But so too, I fear, might the requirement to get A*s. This would not matter if students applied after getting their A-level results but, at present, most do not.
It will require a very self-confident 17 year-old, after fewer than four terms in a sixth form with little tradition of sending students to Oxbridge, to feel sufficiently confident of getting A*s to consider applying to Cambridge.
It is already difficult to persuade many bright students to go for Oxbridge because it involves a different, and earlier, applications deadline. Adding this extra hurdle may put even more off.
So, despite the best intentions, those universities that are already specifying A* grades seem to me to be acting a little too hastily.