The route to excellence

Sometimes newspaper stories start in one place before literally and metaphorically ending in another. Last week’s Sunday Times ran a front page story reporting that: “research by the government’s university funding body into 132,000 students over three years found state school pupils were up to 8% more likely to get a 2:1 or first-class degree than their private school counterparts with the same A level results”. This, according to the article, was “a powerful boost” for universities “to discriminate in favour of state school applicants”.

The busy reader may never have made it to page 2 where a key fact lay. Buried deep in the text of the article was the acknowledgement that “among students achieving A*s and As there was no statistical difference in degree attainment according to school type”. This finding is of key importance in a debate about widening access to top universities.

That the research from which the Sunday Times quotes had not been published at the time of the article was rather unhelpful for any educator or indeed parent wanting to verify the rigour of the conclusions drawn by the newspaper. According to the article, any difference in the university performance of state and independent schools is most marked at the ‘BBC’ grade level. Pupils with these grades are unlikely to meet the entry criteria for top universities who are usually looking for ‘ABB’ or better – in line with the government’s definition of a ‘high achiever’. At that grade level school type does not seem to affect undergraduate performance, and therefore there is no statistical case for top universities to begin discriminating on the basis of school background.

Even if such a case existed, discrimination by school type would be a very crude measure and a somewhat retrograde step. Academics who know the demands of their subject and the context of individual applicants need to be free to make admissions decisions on meritocratic rather than quota grounds. Issues such as health, additional tutoring and parental support can all influence achievement, and admissions tutors must be free to continue to weigh up all factors to enable them to determine each candidate’s potential in the context of their achievements thus far.

In focussing on the pros and cons of discrimination in university entry we risk trying to tackle the cause by addressing the symptoms. If at university some state school pupils with ‘BBC’ grades outperform their privately educated counterparts with the same grades because they have underachieved at A level, then should we not consider and address the reasons for the earlier underperformance? Perhaps the problem and solution rest not with university admissions, but with the insufficient funding provided to state schools.

We must not think that by fixing university admissions we can solve years of educational under-attainment. Cash strapped, staff short universities cannot make up in three or four years for deficiencies in fifteen years of primary and secondary schooling. Students from independent schools still outperform those from the state sector at university; 65% of independent school students achieve a 1st or 2:1 compared to 53% of state school students. As those who pay independent school fees know, it takes years of investment to achieve educational excellence.

The debate needs to move on from tinkering with university entrance to increasing educational standards for all. Michael Gove is to be congratulated for raising educational aspirations, but if these aspirations are to become reality education spending will need to rise significantly.

In a world economy where high level skills and knowledge are essential for economic prosperity, it is vital that we improve Britain’s educational performance or we face a future of accelerated decline. As such, politicians must focus on the big picture of increasing educational investment rather than the detail of university admissions. Finding more money for schools is not easy in the current economic climate, and politicians will need to be brave in looking at answers that combine both public and private money.

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