How do you solve a problem like admissions?

The dilemma of introducing a higher grade at A-level

University admissions will always be a tricky business to manage. Ensuring fairness amongst a large number of stakeholders, all aiming to get the best deal, is no easy feat. The main problem with admissions is that it is predominantly based on A-level results or equivalents which aim to reflect ability but also reflect consequences of fortune and privilege which the applicant cannot control. This is a problem inherent in the current system but the introduction of A* grades at A-level, part of government reforms to 14-19 education, is set to make the situation even worse.

The motivation behind its introduction is an acknowledgment that top Universities are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between applicants who all have 3 ‘A’ grades. The A* will enable Universities to identify the best candidates and therefore make it easier for them to make their offers.

However the situation is not that simple and it is important that the access implications of introducing the A* are fully realised. The Aldwych Group in particular, which represents students at the research-intensive Russell Group of Universities, has come out against the introduction of the A* because of its potential adverse affect on widening participation. The argument for our opposition is based on the reasonable assumption that the students who will benefit most from the A* introduction will more likely come from the independent sector and/or privileged backgrounds.

A student from a privileged background at an independent school, who has the advantage of small classroom sizes, the best teachers and private tutoring is already more equipped to achieve the top grades and is even more likely to be in that top percentile who will achieve the prized A*. Contrast that to the student from a local comprehensive who studies hard to achieve an A grade but hasn’t had the advantages just listed and may just miss out on the A*.

The answer to this initial problem is to suggest that the local comprehensive student be given a lower entry requirement than the independent school student. This levels their equality of opportunity and enables them both to attend a University that reflects their potential academic ability. However, that just creates an even bigger problem.

Suppose the independent school student achieves three A* grades and is not offered a University place due to heavy competition, while the local comprehensive student is accepted with three A’s. Is this system any more just? Has the first student again been penalised for factors for which they cannot be held responsible (e.g. their privileged background and financial status of their parents)?

The solutions for admissions to highly competitive institutions aren’t readily available but the introduction of the A* doesn’t seem to be the answer. The universities of the Russell Group will be forced to use it as a way of separating ‘extremely good’ candidates from ‘excellent candidates’ and inevitably it will be students from non-traditional and widening participation backgrounds who will be most disadvantaged. Of course, no single institution will opt out of using it for fear it might suffer in the competitive market of admissions. It is up to us to put pressure on the Russell Group to reject this bit of legislation across the board, for the sake of fairness and diversity.

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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder