Posted by: Nicholas Swetenham | March 18, 2009

Cambridge entry level to be A*AA – what about access?

The A* grade will be introduced to the A-level in 2010

School-leavers will need to get at least an A* and two A grades in their A-levels from next year if they want to study at Cambridge University.


This is particularly interesting for medicine, where AAA offers and the occasional AAB are the norm. Are we going to see A*A*A* offers a few years from now?

The person contacted for interview in the article is Richard Partington, Senior Tutor of my College, Churchill. I had the privilege of sitting across from him at the Master’s dinner last week, and we discussed the relative merits of A-level, Scottish Highers, IB, Pre-U and EB qualifications. Contrary to popular belief, he did not hold the IB in higher esteem than A-levels. He is, however, quite interested in the new Pre-U developed by Cambridge which will hit the UCAS application cycle next year, and which he helped develop. Faced with this new rival qualification, the A* grade may be a way for state schools to remain competitive.


He says in the article:

“The effect of A*AA “looks neutral”, he said.

“If we were to move perhaps in the sciences to using more than one A* there might be a widening participation benefit: there may be more state school students.”

As for widening participation, Cambridge has had an upward trend in acceptance of students from state school for many years now. Last year was 59%, the highest ever. It could be better, but generally Cambridge is doing okay on gradually increasing this figure.

However, even if we assume that A*AA offers won’t affect state school intake, this is a rather narrow definition of widening participation; it neglects the diversity of schools within the state sector and ethnic diversity. Cambridge remains very middle class and white. It may that Cambridge can continue to increase its state school uptake while taking people mostly from better-off socio-economic backgrounds.

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