Step – An Extra Exam Hurdle For University Applicants

Ellie Grant, a straight A* student, dreams of pursuing a maths degree at a prestigious university. To make this dream a reality, she has applied to Cambridge knowing that she would need to pass the traditionally used Sixth Term Examination Paper (Step). However, she was surprised when two other universities, Bath and Imperial College, made passing Step a requirement for their offer of a place in addition to Cambridge’s requirement. Grant is now concerned that this puts her chance of securing a place at a leading institution in jeopardy.

Grant is not alone in this dilemma. Several more universities, including Bath, Bristol, and Imperial College, are now asking maths, physics or computer science applicants to take Step papers. According to the education charity Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), they have experienced an increase in demand for Step classes. The MEI is putting on three extra Step classes in London to meet demand.

Critics say this policy disadvantages some students. John White, Secretary of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, argued that many students do not have access to help and support to prepare for Step because they do not attend private schools. State schools lack the resources and opportunities afforded by private schools and may not have the staff members capable of providing extra coaching.

Although Step offers are limited to maths-related subjects, White notes that there is scope for top universities to introduce more stringent tests in other subject areas to identify the most able students. Aaron Porter, NUS President, fears that less affluent students may struggle to obtain places at top universities that rely on qualifications like Step.

Charlie Stripp, Chief Executive of MEI, believes that Step papers are a much better indicator of a candidate’s ability than their top grades in maths. Step papers require students to apply mathematical techniques to solve complex problems. Stripp suggests that a qualification is needed that stretches the most exceptional students. However, Stripp admits that opportunities for exceptional students in maths are limited, and the government’s decision to phase out modular exams makes John White’s idea of taking into account students’ marks in different modules a short-term solution.

The universities contacted by Education Guardian emphasized that Step was merely one of the offers available to potential applicants. Bristol University assured that all applications would be considered only based on their A-level scores. If they have indicated that they are taking Step papers, an offer with slightly lower A-level grades and success in a Step examination may also be made available to them. Imperial College London follows a similar approach with only occasional exceptions applying to those who are applying from different routes, such as mature students. The department of computing rarely makes any offers that include the Step requirement. University officials would not make a Step offer if an applicant does not have access to the necessary extra tuition.

On the other hand, the University of Bath wishes to provide access to its mathematical courses to applicants who can only take a single A-level in the subject, and will continue making offers to excellent candidates in this category. However, such candidates should achieve at least merit in advanced extension mathematics or obtain a grade of 2 in one Step paper. The government announced the end of the Aim Higher program in November, and universities are expected to take on more responsibility in promoting participation in higher education.

Cambridge University provides an annual Step residential course, funded through the Sutton Trust, for students from state schools. However, none of the other universities contacted responded when asked to provide details about how they support applicants with Step offers. Despite the negative response to Step papers, the University of Warwick defended its usefulness, saying that students who want to pursue mathematics should be willing to put in the effort to reach their goals, especially if they wish to be taught by the best academics in the country.


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    Axel Lancaster is a 53-year-old blogger who specializes in education-related topics. He has been blogging for over a decade and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with his readers. Axel is a highly respected authority on the subject of education and is regularly quoted in the media. He is also a sought-after speaker and has given presentations at numerous conferences and events.