Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Teaching our young people that discrimination is OK.

This week, David Willetts, the Universities' Minister, argued that it would be right for Universities to discriminate against pupils with better A-level grades from Independent schools [See "David Willetts: state school students with good A-levels should get preferential treatment" Daily Telegraph 03/04/2011].

I, more than most, have good reason to believe that education is the right vehicle for social mobility; however, I do believe that it needs to be done on the basis of merit. I do not think that the top universities should be forced into lowering their exacting standards to comply with a social engineering agenda of the Government - regardless of its colour.

According to David Willetts:
“If you get an A and two Bs at a school where the average A level grades are a C and 2 Ds, then I think that shows you're achieving something exceptional. Someone who is getting perhaps even better grades, but at a school where everyone gets good grades may not have achieved something so exceptional."
What David Willetts fails to see is that this is not a debate about contextual success, it is about excellence. The ABB pupil may be doing comparatively well in a school where CDD is the norm, but he is not doing anything exceptional by national standards.

Let me move this debate away from the shades of grey comparing ABB pupils in maintained sector schools with AAB candidates in Independent Schools, to the clear territory of discrimination that apparently exists against truly outstanding Independent School pupils.

Take for example the case of one Berkhamsted pupil last year. She had a perfect academic record: 10 A*s at GCSE and was predicted A*A*A* at A-level. She was rejected by four out of five of the universities to whom she applied for English. Now I can understand how someone with such an academic record could fail to gain a place at Oxford, for the Oxbridge Colleges still believe in additional testing and interviews; however I am at a loss as to how she could fail to gain an offer from the University of Leeds on the basis of her UCAS form alone. How many A*A*A* applicants does the English Faculty at Leeds get each year? What can justify their standard offer of AAB, if they can reject A*A*A* candidates without an interview?

A-levels [or the other equivalent school leaving qualifications, such as the IB] are the recognised national measure of the preparedness of a given pupil for university. An A-level candidate who has a AAB is clearly not as well prepared for university as a candidate who has achieved A*A*A*, regardless of social background and previous educational opportunities. If Universities are to apply other criteria to their admissions process, they need to be transparent about the criteria which they use. But sadly, they are not being so.

Let us be clear where this will lead. If institutionalised discrimination against Independent School candidates becomes the Government-sanctioned norm, there will be legal challenges by individual pupils against this policy. The basis of the challenge is likely to be along the following lines:
It is parents who choose to send their children to Independent Schools. It is not the applicant's fault that he or she had a socially advantageous background or went to an Independent School. It is wholly discriminatory for a University to discriminate against a given applicant on the basis of the socio-economic background of their parents or because of a decision about schooling their parents made a number of years earlier. So long as the university admissions criteria remain based on the candidate's academic record, the applicant who has the better grades should have the right to that place on merit, regardless of their social or educational background.
There are Human Rights issues here and I suspect that it won't be long before the Courts will be asked to rule on this one.

If Universities take up David Willetts' exhortation then we are simply teaching our young people that discrimination is acceptable in this country.


  1. The key phrase here is 'without interview'. Grades do not give an absolute measure of the quality of a pupil, and the grades achieved are a result of many factors. The only true way to determine what a pupil may be capable of at university is to interview. To reject pupils with higher grades from higher achieving Schools without interview makes no statistical sense, and though the proposal may find favour with the average man in the street, in no way does it ensure that the 'best' young people gain the top university places. Let's be tactical about this, and send our children to the lowest achieving Schools in the area, and then shell out cash for a private tutor (it will still cost less than private education). The world's their oyster.

  2. The obvious policy for a parent seeking his/her child's best chance of getting to the university and course of his/her choice is to leave the independent school a year before taking final exams and take these from a state school. I believe Mr and Mrs Blair did exactly this.

  3. There is certainly some evidence that people are shifting between sectors [See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/apr/12/private-school-pupils-comprehensive-switch?CMP=twt_fd]; however, there may be additional financial pressures driving this at this time, and not just parents 'positioning' their child for a State School application.

    Independent Schools are best equipped to get pupils into the very top universities and have a proven track record at doing so. There is clear resistance to the social engineering agenda from the top universities and there is increasing evidence that admission on merit - as defined by AS UMS marks is the best way forward [See my recent blogpost on Cambridge University's research.]

  4. I think this highlights issues about the purpose of school and exams. To the extent that the system is a 14-year selection process to allow universities to choose the brightest students, it may well be legitimate to differentiate between schools: ABB from a weak school may represent the same or higher level of innate ability as AAB from a strong school (which innate ability would then manifest itself in degree performance). To the extent that exams demonstrate a standard to be built on at university, it is clearly not: AAB represents the same standard of attainment wherever it is achieved.

    The question, then, is how these two considerations should be balanced in university admissions. This, to my mind, can only be answered empirically: to what extent do students from weaker schools in fact go on to shine at university. Unfortunately from the point of view of social mobility (though not from the point of view of your commercial interests), the answer seems to be "not very much".

    It is for this reason that I am somewhat puzzled by all the objections to tuition fees. It seems clear to me that the way to increase social mobility is to save money on things like universities, and greatly increase spending on state schools (decreasing class sizes, increasing teachers' pay to attract better candidates, etc.), so that bright children from poor backgrounds have a fair chance to realise their potential.