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The rise of entrance exams… and the knock on impact for A-levels

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education

Gaining entry to a top university is the benchmark for ambitious, high-performing students and the standard route into higher education has always been the A-level. Yet with more universities introducing their own entrance exam from which to select students Stephen Spriggs of William Clarence Education believes we could be coming closer to the death of the A-level.

They say A-levels are the hardest two years in education, the results of which can mean the difference between winning a place at an excellent university or starting an average course at a mediocre one. However, the recent news that more top universities are ignoring A-levels and devising their own entrance exams to select undergraduates could spell the end of the A-level as the benchmark academic qualification in the UK.

The change comes on the back of the dramatic dip in university applications this year. Around 4% fewer students applied this year and with empty courses to fill, many Russell Group universities have taken matters into their own hands in a bid to entice the best students.

Why aren’t students applying this year?

Brexit has undoubtedly had an impact. Applications from the European Union has dropped as young people avoid Britain while question marks remain over their eligibility to stay here following graduation. They’re also deterred by the fact fees may increase in line with non-EU countries. This, coupled with a decline in the youth population has meant some universities are faced with half-filled courses.

Another factor is to do with the change in attitude towards ‘clearing’, which we commonly think of as a bunfight by students who have failed to achieve the grades needed for their first-choice university. There has been a shift towards student preference and, with higher education now requiring a substantial financial investment, young people are considering the benefits gained from choosing a particular university. The onus is now on establishments to compete against one another to attract students through clever marketing techniques.

What will be the effect of reducing the relevance of the A-level?

Universities taking matters into their own hands could have a knock-on effect on all levels of education. Firstly, it could lead to a widening gap in state and private schools. The independent sector, which has the freedom to design its own curriculums, will focus on what universities look for in students, as opposed to what the government decrees is necessary. Without targeted teaching, state school students will have little or no opportunity to prepare for these exams and thus, will be excluded even further. Home tuition will be on the rise, but only for those who can afford it.

Secondly, if the top tier of universities starts to ignore A-levels, what would be the impact on those studying them? Morale would be at an all-time low if teenagers felt the results were meaningless. A-levels would lose their appeal with higher-achievers and we could be faced with the extraordinary scenario that, in the near future, youngsters would leave school with no A-levels or International Baccalaureate qualifications and it wouldn’t hinder their progression one jot. The school sixth form would be ditched in favour of a private tutorial college, where they could work towards the singular goal of getting into the university of their choice.

How does this affect students?

Right now, A-levels are a broad brush stepping stone to higher education. By rendering them second class to the entrance exam, they could become a byword for below par. They would be taken largely by lesser-able students who would then gain access to only the lower-tier universities. Recruiters for top-notch careers in law or banking would throw the CVs full of A-levels straight in the bin. If A-levels are ignored by the top tier of students, we’re looking at an even more divisive system and an increasing demand for bespoke education.

As unis compete to attract the best students, they would beat to their own drum and function as single-minded institutions. They could tailor their exams however they liked, targeting the kind of student they wanted. By doing so, it would almost certainly drive up school fees as parents scramble to get their children in the ones that filter through to the best universities.

Independent schools have been doing this for years so it isn’t new to us. We’re used to creating targeted, personalised programmes that prepare individuals for specific qualifications or entrance exams or an interview with a particular university (many of which are looking for a certain type of students). We’ve made it our business to understand what an establishment is looking for personality wise, what kind of questions their test is likely to consist of and how to prepare a student accordingly.

And we’re not only looking in the UK. Right now, there is an increase in students from all around the world aiming for the top three or four universities in the UK and then the top three or four colleges in the US. US college application has been our biggest growing business practice in the past two years.

A-levels are as traditional as sports day and have long been the standardised method of assessing students at the end of formal education. If this is no longer the case, they lose their credibility and become a second-rate qualification. We can’t stop universities from designing their own entrance exams but maybe we can look at why they’re doing this and alter the system so that, once again, A-levels become the gold standard qualification that opens the door to higher education.

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education

About William Clarence Education: The leading education advisory and consultancy service in the UK. With an unrivalled reach into the UK Schooling and University network, William Clarence offers unbiased advice to students and parents from around the world; at every stage of their academic journey.  From Independent School Application and Placement, full UCAS and University application consultancy, Oxbridge Applications  US College Admission and even Homeschooling programmes, William Clarence Education draws on a deep relationship driven network with schools, Universities and senior education figures within the industry.  By putting the student and family at the centre of the process, William Clarence ensures their clients reach their maximum potential and gain access to the very best of UK education.

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