Evidence is mixed, although you wouldn’t have thought so


The Sutton Trust has published research that state school pupils at university  actually perform better than independently educated pupils with similar A levels . The  Higher Education Funding Council for England, in 2003, had  claimed too that, given equal A-level scores, a higher proportion of graduates from state schools achieved a 2:1 than those from the independent sector.  Indeed these  claims are  repeated so frequently that  they have attained the status now  of ‘ received wisdom’, although   the evidence base is , on the face of it, pretty slender.

In 2006,  Dr N.G. McCrum, Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College, Dr C.L. Brundin and A.H. Halsey, Emeritus Professor of Social and Administrative Studies, said that at both Oxford and Cambridge  claims about state educated undergraduates performance is mixed. Looking at A-level scores and finals scores of graduates between 1976 and 2002, they concluded that, overall, A-level results determined finals results. “For both types of school for both genders at Oxford and Cambridge, A level dictates finals score, except in the sciences for males,” the dons wrote. “This is surely a boost for the use of A level in the admissions exercise.” In other words, Oxbridge colleges should not expect state school students to do better than their privately educated peers with the same grades, except if they are male and studying science at Oxford. Conversely, privately educated men studying science at Cambridge also had a lead;  as traditionally, apparently,  scientists from private schools have  tended to go to Cambridge.

The Sunday Times has revealed that according to recent Cambridge university  research, covering entrants from 2006-9,  which may be shared with OFFA in due course , students from poorly performing comprehensives did not do better in university exams than others with the same A-level grades. Tim Hands, master of Magdalen College school, Oxford and spokesman on universities for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, a group of more than 250 independent schools, said: “The Cambridge findings call into question policies that use generic discrimination.”

In a sign that Oxbridge is fighting back against  what it sees as a threat to  autonomy , a couple of  weeks ago, Richard Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, Cambridge, who also chairs two of the university’s key admissions committees, told parents at a meeting at Dulwich college, a leading private school, that they should “not worry that we will be dictated to” by the government. Partington subsequently  said he was not concerned by the demands set out by ministers, adding: “We are very committed to widening participation, but it has to be based on validity and rationale, not guesswork.” Ouch! Oxbridge  has invested heavily in access programmes and point out that the best way to improve access is to ensure that state pupils get better A level grades,     (ie   over which universities have no influence) as these still remain the best predictor of how pupils will fare at  university. (GCSEs also help as a good performance across a range of subjects suggests   the kind of flexibility and robustness which admissions tutors are on the look out for).  Elite universities also complain that pupils are taking the wrong A levels for the courses they offer,   either because schools are giving pupils poor advice or indeed   actively encouraging them  to  take soft options. Sadly, Oxbridge appear, unlike Ivy League colleges,  not to give much weight now to extra curricular activities (music, arts, community service, sport,  Duke of Edinburghs award etc)

The Coalition government is keen to  pressure the best universities to take more pupils from disadvantaged  communities. Although falling short of advocating quotas , the stick is clear- reduced funding  for those institutions that fail to demonstrate, to the governments satisfaction,  that they are serious about improving access. However,  the social and economic costs of allowing entry to pupils at elite universities who are unable to cope with a very challenging  academic environment  are very high indeed ,  and will also damage these  institutions reputations as well as   their  global competitiveness. The right balance has got to be struck between improving access and maintaining standards, and it does seem that the views of politicians and Oxbridge  academics differ on where this balance lies .


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