Opinion: fix our school system and stop uni-bashing

As a former constituent and activist in Bermondsey and Old Southwark I greatly enjoyed campaigning on behalf of Simon Hughes and have a lot of respect for his approach to policy and the hard work he puts in, especially meeting face to face with local voters and community groups. I was shocked, however, to read quotes from Simon on the front page of Saturday’s Guardian calling on universities to ‘cut intake’ from independent schools in order to match nationally ‘representative’ proportions: 7.2% was his quoted figure for the proportion of students we ought to aim at coming from an independent school background. Not only is this quota-matching idealism an illiberal approach that has seen plenty of criticism here on LDV over the years, it ignores the real barriers to academic performance (and, indeed, the element of student choice) that lead to ‘unrepresentative’ ratios in our elite institutions and seeks to lay all the blame at the door of the (already battle-scarred) admissions office.

The job of a university admissions officer is to select candidates who they think will perform the best on the course they have applied for, and the gold standard for selection is a candidate’s A Level results. The real barriers to comprehensive school success in winning university places, as I hope you will be persuaded, are failure to achieve sufficiently high A Level results, and failure to counsel applicants to choose A Levels subjects that are sought by universities. But let’s start with that 7.2% …

The figure of 7.2% is the proportion of 15-16 year olds in independent school education in the UK. Jump two years on to A Level candidates and the proportion in independent education also jumps up to 14% – thus the first barrier to Simon’s quota is the drop out rate at state school after GCSE; a factor that I hope he agrees admissions officers are not responsible for tackling. Whether or not it is a useful goal to have all state school students taking A Levels is a matter for another debate, but it seems unlikely that a parent would pay for independent schooling if they didn’t expect their child to go on to take A Levels. This makes the task of altering that ratio difficult without forcing all state-educated children into sixth-form education, perhaps against their will and away from environments where they might develop better skills.

Of all A Level candidates, roughly 47% come from comprehensive schools, 31% from HE colleges, 14% from independent schools and 8% from grammar schools [Powerpoint file]. To get into a good university, though, applicants need good grades in appropriate subjects. Look at the proportion getting three As at A Level and now 35% come from the independent sector, 29% from the comprehensive system, 19% from colleges and 17% from grammar schools: both independent schools and grammar schools are over-represented in the 3A applicant cohort by over 200% and even the Oxford University intake of 46% independent school applicants doesn’t look a million miles away from the proportion of qualified students.

The final barriers to address are those of appropriate choices of A Level and degree course. State schools seem to set out to maximise the average number of A Level ‘points’ of their students regardless of subject. A Level subject choices listed in the Guardian show comprehensive school students disproportionately choosing technology, drama, sports, RE and media while independent school students choose classics, modern languages, mathematics and economics. How much this choice is due to school counselling and how much is student driven is an open question, but encouraging students to take ‘lighter’ subjects rewards a school in the league tables while detrimentally affecting the students’ chances of getting onto a more selective university course. If we want to normalise university admission rates, setting incentives for schools other than blanket A Level point scores will be key.

Finally you have to examine the nature of courses offered at England’s elite institutions: although Latin and Greek are not a prerequisite to apply to Oxford’s various Classics-based degree programmes, they must surely help – why should a student choose a Classics subject if they have not been exposed to it at school? At Oxford University, Classics, Classics and English, and Classics and Modern Languages all have a larger number of applicants from the independent sector than the state sector so it is hardly surprising that more places are awarded to students from independent schools. The same is true for Geography, Modern Languages and Materials Science. Over all subjects, independent schools have around a 5% higher success rate per applicant than the state sector – this really isn’t a huge gap and suggests that simply increasing the number of state-school applicants as well as choosing A Levels and degrees more strategically would go a long way to redressing the balance.

If Simon wants to see higher representation of the state sector in our elite institutions we need three things: gifted state pupils being supported to achieve 3 As at A Level if it is within their grasp, through mentoring schemes, after-school clubs and so on; Modern Languages, Classics and hard science subjects being pushed harder in state sixth forms and colleges; and more high-achieving state pupils being encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge – especially to under-represented degree subjects. Unless admissions officers have sufficiently qualified applicants to choose from the state sector, we’ll never have a more representative student body in our universities. Also vital, of course, is strong support for primary education – but that is a subject for another article (or several).

In the meantime, our elected representatives would do well to concentrate more on creating a state education system that produces highly capable applicants rather than attempting to dump their own responsibility on the much-maligned admissions office.

Disclaimer: Ed Long is neither an admissions officer, a former public schoolboy nor an Oxbridge graduate. You can see Ed’s previous articles for LibDemVoice here.

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34 Comments

  • Hear hear! And it ties in with the findings that many schools encourage pupils (NOT students – when did mis-using the term “student” for pupil start happening?) to sit less rigorous subjects in order to bump themsleves up the league tables.

    Sadly, there is also evidence that some pupils are actively discouraged from applying to Oxbridge by teachers who brand them “elitist”.

  • “Further education is ignored in this article and generally in this country, higher education is not the be all and end all.”

    Agreed. This needs to be reflected all through the school system.

    One of the biggest mistakes was the conversion of Polytechnics into Universities; the Polys offered a distinct vocationally-based set of degrees of great value.

  • Depressed Ex Lib Dem 13th Jan '11 - 12:38pm

    Yes, Simon Hughes’s comments were depressing. Another indication that politicians really don’t “get” the concept of education for its own sake.

  • Spot on article. Addresses the issues well and evenly. I hope that more politicians will use this sort of reasoning, though it seems a forlorn hope.

  • Many years ago I was (jointly) responsible for admissions to biological science courses at a well-respected university.

    The vast majority of applicants were all predicted 3As as in relevant A level subjects. We therefore look at other factors that would help to discriminate between applicants. Which school they came from was not taken into account – it was only the pupils ability to benefit from the course that mattered.

    One time I actually checked to see what proportions of offers were given to “state schools” and what to “independent” schools. The percentages were identical to the proportions of applicants from each group.

    When it came to acceptance of our offers, the percentage of candidates from state schools dropped markedly. It was the applicant who chose not to take up the offer and there was nothing we could do about the proportions at that stage.

    And still you got accused of favouring “independent” schools……!

  • Thanks for the comments.

    @Law Abiding Citizen – I don’t know many Lib Dems who do support this idea and not even sure if Simon would really defend it if challenged. Telling the Guardian just what they want to hear as a counterweight to the tuition fees row perhaps …

    @Louise Shaw – no, I quite agree that university isn’t the right thing for everyone. I do think, however, that comprehensive schools can get better at getting those pupils(!) who wish to into the UK’s top institutions just by giving better advice about A Level choice and degree choice and by offering a small amount of extra academic support for potential applicants to those institutions. Simplistic points-based league tables mitigate their incentive to do this, though.

  • Sad to see the coalition adopt the same populist agenda as Labour. All we had for the last 13 years was an obsession in raising student numbers regardless and the goal of getting more working class kids into the ‘elite’ universities (plus, of course ever increasing bureaucracy) . Laudable aims perhaps but missing an important issue. University numbers should grow primarily on the basis of rising standards within the school system not lowering standards in the HE sector. Quotas miss this point entirely. I can help but think that Gove has got something right with the English Bacc. The results yesterday shows how many schools have been shooting up the league tables by pushing subjects that are not of interest to the top universities. As some one who works in HE in the new university sector, many students have been ill-prepared to prosper in HE in general, let alone getting a place in Oxford or Imperial.

  • “As some one who works in HE in the new university sector, many students have been ill-prepared to prosper in HE in general, let alone getting a place in Oxford or Imperial.”

    Someone should be advising them to apply for a good University 🙂

  • Alex Sabine 13th Jan '11 - 3:20pm

    Absolutely agree with this, well said Ed.

    Proposing quotas of this sort is intellectually lazy (for all the reasons you explain) as well as illiberal. It should not be used as a stick to beat the universities with because some of our backbenchers and members are unhappy with the rise in tuition fees, or because we need to save face, or to create a contrived row within government, or for any other reason,

    Given that students (once they become graduates) will be footing much more of the bill for their higher education, one would hope that HE institutions will become more answerable to them; it would be perverse if they become ever more creatures of the state, cajoled by ministers and MPs to hit politically driven targets. The state should address its own shortcomings in primary and secondary education rather than scapegoating university admissions offices.

  • Excellent piece and excellent comments.

    Ed Long mentions the obsession with points scores. These are listed in the League Tables……….

    I do wonder if universities could offer shorter, more intensive courses. The independent Buckinham University manages to do so.

  • Simon McGrath 13th Jan '11 - 3:49pm

    Fantastic piece. Totally demolishing Quotas.
    I guess the charitable view is that Hughes hasn’t thought this through.

  • Depressed Ex Lib Dem 13th Jan '11 - 8:08pm

    “Not sure if I agree with Mr. Hughes on quotas, but the top universities do need to look harder at the implicit biases in their admissions systems.”

    But you could say that there was an implicit bias in any selection criterion, in that private schools have the resources to prepare their pupils better. The same is true of an entrance exam. All the universities can do is use the evidence at their disposal to try to select the ablest candidates. Imposing a quota system isn’t going to achieve that.

  • Since when has punishing those lucky enough to have wealthy parents been a Liberal policy?

    There’s a world of difference between giving somebody a helping hand up where necessary and barring huge swathes of privately educated students from going to University by dint of birth.

    Shameful. Ham-fisted populism leapfrogging the principle of equality of opportunity.

  • David Pollard – your comment doesn’t make sense.

    If the problem, as you see it, is that too many BBC bosses, newspaper editors and politicians come from Oxford and Cambridge then the solution must surely be to criticise media recruitment policy and *choose not to vote for* candidates with an Oxbridge background rather than to impose a bizarre and self-defeating quota on the universities.

    And, contrary to your assertion, imposing a quota on admissions would entirely remove the incentive for state schools to adequately prepare pupils for Oxbridge since their success rate (based on current number of applications) would be close to 50%, given how few apply.

    You’re right that fewer parents might send their children to independent schools, but parental income affects educational attainment even within the state sector so that is no guarantee that you would have a broader slice of society being admitted to top universities – you’d just end up with rich state school kids going to Oxbridge instead of rich private school kids.

    D- in logic I’m afraid.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jan '11 - 11:53am

    Having spent over ten years as a university department admissions tutor, I agree with this article.

    I am absolutely fed up with seeing people like me dismissed as “snobs” because we prefer some entrance qualifications to others. I was brought up on a council estate, not only was I the first in my immediate family to go to university, I was the first to have ANY formal qualifications. I took on the job of admissions tutor because I was passionate about getting people from my sort of background into university.

    The fact is, however, that as an admissions tutor, I had to fill my places, and I had to fill them with people who would do well on the degree. My experience was that the qualifications that correlated most closely to success in the degree were mathematics and those involving abstract reasoning, which includes to some extent languages and those involving written analysis. The supposedly more “vocational” qualifications often indicated very little real skill, even when they were supposed to be vocational in the subject my department is all about. The problem with them was that their assessment tended to be too much based on memorisation and regurgitating and other forms of box-ticking. They generated a poor attitude to study amongst those who took them, which they often just could not get out of. They did nit develop and test the more abstract skills we really need.

    But you just could not get this message across to those in power and the educational establishment, because they just closed their minds , refused to listen to what you said, and just dismissed you as a “snob”. So, here, at least on the “English Baccalaureate” issue, Gove is right. See – I do agree with Tories sometimes.

    This was a huge problem with the schools who sent us university applicants (mostly local state schools). So many of those applicants could perfectly well do the A-levels that we knew would best equip them, but did not because no-one told them they were the most useful. It was NOT a matter, as has been claimed recently, of universities hiding their requirements as some sort of way of biasing entrance against state schools. Good grief – I had a huge task filling my places with decent students, I could not AFFORD to be snobbish and dismiss able applicants wherever they came from. We were forever trying to work out ways of getting the message across to school what our ideal requirements would be, but it was hard. One thing that made it hard was the political culture that refused to listen to what we were saying because they dismissed it as just “snobbery”. Another was this demand that we give “either/or” rules, whereas I wanted to look at every applicant as an individual. It wasn’t a matter of some A-level subjects being “banned” as is being suggested, it was just that our evidence suggested some were less useful in predicting success than others, so we weren’t keen on applicants with them – but we’d still take them if there were other good reasons to take them. If we said “A-level Maths required”, we ended up losing a large number of applicants we’d be very happy to take on, because although we preferred them to have it, we could get by if they didn’t, what we really wanted was the sort of logical ability which doing A-level Maths develops and tests. If we didn’t say “A-level Maths required”, we ended up with huge number of applicants whose maths skills were extremely weak – often not even with C in GCSE – and when we contacted the schools and asked “Why are you sending us all these obviously unsuitable applicants, we are just rejecting them?” the reply was “But you didn’t say Maths was required”. If you accepted applicants with qualifications that were not particularly suitable, the schools took that as the message we were happy with those sort of qualifications and did not direct their pupils into those we found more useful. Any sort of message about some subjects not being useful to us because they were not good predictors of success in the degree tended to be taken as a personal criticism of the teachers teaching them or the pupils taking them, and it was sort of hard to do that when you were placed in front of these people giving the “Why apply to our university?” talk.

  • Alex Sabine 14th Jan '11 - 1:56pm

    Interesting insights from your first-hand experience, Matthew. I wholly agree about the lazy use of the ‘snobbery’ label by some in the educational establishment, which I think betrays a more fundamental inability (or refusal) to distinguish between academic elitism (good) and social elitism (bad).

    By ‘academic elitism’ in this context, I do NOT mean elitist attitudes towards social class or individual potential held by academic institutions, but rather the belief that high academic standards must be maintained and not diluted in a misguided attempt to help underprivileged children. Defending high academic standards is not snobbery; on the contrary, it is the belief that most children from poor backgrounds can’t attain them that is deeply patronising and simply wrong, as the transformation of some (sadly too few) inner-city state schools in recent years has amply demonstrated.

    @ Andrew Tennant

    “By preventing Oxbridge taking the ‘best’ candidates, and making them take individuals on origins, not talent, you’d weaken them as an institution; you might see the Oxbridge proportions in high flying careers falling, but I’d dispute that that would mean much greater diversity or that it would strengthen the country.”

    Indeed, in the face of what they would (rightly) perceive as a major threat to their quality, reputation and independence, Oxbridge would opt out of the state system and go private.

  • Alex Sabine 14th Jan '11 - 2:00pm

    I meant to say, “would be likely to…” in my last sentence. Certainly it would be strong provocation to do so by the government.

  • Lucas Green 27th Jan '11 - 1:06pm

    A quota system is the only way to destroy the nefarious Oxbridge elite that has run this country for too many years. But the point at which the quota sysytem is imposed should be at the occupational recruitment stage. In other words, ALL state-funded employers – the private sector would be more difficult to regulate – would by law have to recruit a much higher proportion of suitably qualified students from universities other than Oxford and Cambridge.There are huge numbers of very able students who go to non-Oxbridge universities who do not achieve medium or high positions in state sector employment because of the Oxbridge old boys network which restricts mobility and perpetuates elitism (the recent Milburn Report illuminates this very issue) . Encouraging children from economically disadvantaged families to aim for Oxbridge is not the answer; that only perpetuates the Oxbridge domination of our university system. This Oxbridge elite must be removed entirely, or at least its influence must be drastically reduced, if we want to aim for a more equitable society which is not based on privilege, wealth and social connections.

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