Highers pass A-levels as Oxbridge gold standard Jackie Kemp and Camillo Fracassini

Oxford and Cambridge universities say they consider the Advanced Higher as a more testing qualification and will accept students with lower grades than in equivalent A-level subjects.

It is a further indication that the A-level, once regarded as Britain's “gold standard” qualification, has been discredited.

A-level results released last week showed pass rates rising for the 23rd consecutive year to a new high of 96.2%. Almost 23% of candidates are now awarded an A grade. The Advanced Higher pass rate stands at 74.5%, an increase of just 1% since the exam's introduction in 2000.

While the tariffs set down by Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, regard the two qualifications as equivalent, Cambridge and Oxford — placed second and 10th in the world-ranking of universities — have modified their admission requirements.

“We have started advising colleges to ask for AAB at Advanced Higher or AA, compared to AAA at A-level,” said a spokeswoman for Oxford University. “It is a recognition of the fact that it is harder to obtain an A in Advanced Higher and we don’t want Scottish students to be disadvantaged.”

A spokeswoman for Cambridge University said: “We’re well aware that fewer top grades are awarded for Advanced Highers than for A-levels and we recognise this in the offers we make to our applicants. Students sitting A-levels will almost always be required to get AAA, whereas we usually ask students sitting Advanced Highers for AAB.”

Professor John MacBeath, an adviser to the Scottish executive and the UK government on education standards, said he was not surprised the universities had recognised the Scottish qualification’s superiority.

“Though Scottish Highers have not been regarded as an equivalent to A-levels because they lack depth, the Advanced Higher is the best of both worlds because it is built on a broader base,” he said. “The danger for universities is that you get people who are over-specialised and don’t have the breadth of education that the Scottish Highers offer. Personally, I would prefer an Advanced Higher over an A-level.”

MacBeath added that he believed there was too much emphasis on testing in the English system, to the detriment of learning. “It is to the benefit of Scottish schools that they have not adopted a national testing culture that pushes you from day one to prepare for tests. There is more scope in Scottish schools to look at the process of learning rather than adhering fanatically to outcomes.

“You can get your A-levels, but at the end of the day are you any use when it comes to being on your own and being a self-driven student? Universities often find that these people who have passed all the exams have been spoon-fed and are dependant learners.”

Judith McClure, head teacher at St George’s school in Edinburgh, said 52% of her pupils were awarded A grades at A-level, compared with 44% at Advanced Higher. “The Advanced Higher is a very, very challenging qualification,” she said.

“Sometimes we have to shine a light in the eyes of admissions officers and point out the relative difficulty, but most are very good and understand that the Scottish qualifications are very, very robust. They are internationally respected because of that.”

In an attempt to counter claims that standards are falling, UK ministers are considering making the exams harder. Under proposals being prepared for Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, the brightest pupils would be given the opportunity to attempt an extra set of harder questions at the end of the exam. If they pass, they would be given an A grade with “distinction” or “merit”.

A comparison of this year’s results shows significantly more As at A-level. In English, 20% of candidates achieved an A grade at A-level, compared with 9% at Advanced Higher.

Sunday Times
August 21st 2005