TORY BACKBENCHERS CHALLENGE WILLETTS
Minister challenged on his use of evidence to justify access policy
Some Tory backbenchers are uneasy at the direction of travel that David Willetts is taking on fair access and HE and are challenging in particular some of the evidence he uses in support of his arguments. Willetts is trying to ensure that universities do not simply judge candidates on exam results but also take into account their potential. But backbenchers believe that this will result in social engineering often at the expense of privately educated pupils. For starters they don’t much like the new more heavy handed interventionist approach from the access regulator, OFFA, particularly as access is improving and it is unfair and in a sense counter-productive to seek to turn universities into agents of social mobility. Nor can they recall this being part of the Tories manifesto commitments. Willetts claims that independent school pupils do not perform as well at university as state school pupils with similar grades. He implies not unreasonably that if a pupil from a poor state school gets fairly similar grades to a privately educated pupil then admissions tutors should favour the state school pupil taking into account the obstacles they have faced and their potential to outperform the privately educated pupil. Evidence shows he claims state school pupils outperform their privately educated peers at university. There have been two recent studies he says that support this proposition. They look at how you would do university admissions if you were trying to equalise the chances of getting a First or 2:i. For Oxford, Ogg, Zimdars and Heath have found that “the same average GCSE grades for a private school and a state school student do not mean the same thing; they do not represent the same potential to achieve a first-class degree at Oxford”. Hoare and Johnston have shown that Bristol university students educated at independent schools perform better in their A Levels than those who had attended state schools – but they were significantly less likely to get a first-class degree and more likely to get a 2:ii or worse.
But Tory backbencher James Clappison in a debate on Higher Education last week said that while the authors of the Oxford study said that there was a slight difference between state and independent schools and it ought to be taken into account, they also , and rather significantly, pointed out that this had probably already been taken into account by academics in the admissions process. The report says that “according to earlier research using the OAS data set, the selectors at Oxford in fact appear to already discount the GCSE grades of private school students…One might therefore be tempted to suggest that the selectors at Oxford have done their job of getting the best students to Oxford fairly well.”
The authors go on to say that there is no evidence of under-performance by private school students. Indeed it would seem that the Ogg, Zimdars and Heath report for Oxford, far from indicating a bias in favour of pupils from private schools, shows quite the reverse, with a bias against pupils from private schools. Christopher Chope another Tory backbenchers in a separate Commons intervention backed the challenge to Willetts on his use of this evidence.
Willetts may also not be aware that research in 2006, from 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 also revealed recently that according to the most 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 in response to this study : “The Cambridge findings call into question policies that use generic discrimination.”
Universities argue that if you really want increased mobility-then intervene much earlier and make sure that pupils secure good GCSE grades. Also ensure that pupils get good professional advice early at 13/14 ,so they choose the right qualifications for HE courses and help them secure appropriate grades. Social mobility will always be constrained if more than half of state school pupils fail to secure five good GCSEs which is what happens now. If you cant secure decent grades at GCSE then it is highly unlikely that you will be able to cope with and benefit from a degree course at a leading university.
But transforming the system will obviously take time, and Ministers say they have to deal with the world as it is, not as they would like it, one in which there are widely divergent standards and outcomes in secondary schools and one in which disadvantaged pupils are not being given the opportunities they deserve. This is about trying to maximise equality of opportunity now, rather than awaiting improvements in state education which at best will be slow to appear.
But Willetts needs to be careful in not only what evidence he quotes but in the way he interprets its findings.