19 MARCH 1988, Page 24

Damaging admissions

Sir: Mr Mitchell's response (Letters, 12 March) to your leader on the Cambridge admissions system is worrying. He says that 'A levels are the key element in admission' and records with some pride that Cambridge has done itself 'a great deal of good' by raising the proportion of entrants with three A's at A level.

I sat my A levels recently, and I cannot say that they were a test of anything except the ability to learn facts and work hard. In the Latin and Greek papers, it became obvious that it was possible to obtain the highest grade with a poor knowledge of grammar and the language by learning the set books at an extraordinarily high level of thoroughness. This fact offers the teacher the temptation to neglect all but the necessary, yet tedious, process of grinding the standard translations and essays into his poor pupil's heads. It is a temptation that, with the knowledge of the pleasure it will give the parents, and of the sure sense of achievement it will give to the pupils, will be hard to resist; but its consequences will be far-ranging and disastrous. I believe that English, History and all the other arts A levels provide the same temptation.

I also sat the highly rigorous Oxford exam recently, which encouraged candi- dates to show flair and original thought, and treated them with an intellectual re- spect which the narrow and patronising view of teenagers evident in the A level exam, and, I am afraid, Mr Mitchell's letter denied and denies them.

My fears are also that the very people who Mr Mitchell wishes to help will be impoverished by his policy. The older, richer and more powerful schools in this country will always be able to hold them- selves aloof from educational fads; but it is the underpaid teacher in a local state school, timorous and fearful for his future, with Mr Baker's Parent Groups and Mr Mitchell's reasonable sentences hanging above his head, who will have to face the terrible dilemma whether to try to com- municate his deeply-felt love of his subject to his pupils, or to dole out yet another pile of photocopied Brodie's notes.

D. N. Beazer New College, Oxford