Treating the symptoms, not the cause

August 11, 2009 7:09 PM

News emerged over the weekend of Government plans to ‘head start’ disadvantaged pupils in the scramble for university places (BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph). The plan – to be presented in the Higher Education Framework released in the autumn – will see applicants from schools in disadvantaged areas (high proportions of children on free school meals) given a two grade advantage over their peers from more affluent schools. In other words, a standard ABB threshold will be lowered to a BBC threshold for poorer applicants.


To a former state school pupil who believes in equality of competition, the plan originally smacked of misguided positive discrimination. But once one picks beneath the headline, the proposal is not quite as clear cut as it first seems. At least that is, if the Government actually thinks before it acts.


The proposal is based on the experiences of trial schemes run by Leeds University and two London medical schools. At St George's Medical School the standard requirements for a place to study medicine is three A’s at A-level. However, candidates can be given grade offers as low as two B’s and a C if they have outperformed their school average by 60 per cent.


It’s this last part that really makes the scheme interesting. Outperforming a school average by 60 per cent – even if the schools average is depressingly low – is a significant achievement. In successful, predominantly middle class state schools, higher average grades (majority of pupils getting A’s and B’s) surpassing the school average by such an extent would be impossible. But in a struggling state school, mirred in a poor area with low levels of employment and high levels of delinquency, the achievement is only possible by the brighteset and most committed. Perhaps such achievement should be acknowledged.


It is worth noting that the system deployed by St George’s still demands that pupils study Chemistry and Biology at A-Level. The widely panned General and Media Studies courses won’t cut the mustard. Furthermore, all students are interviewed before offers confirmed. At Leeds, eligible applicants must also pass an introductory course before winning the place. There is little ammunition to the argument that ill-equipped, uncommitted and weaker educated candidates would be blindly accepted by universities over more suitable traditional background ones. Indeed, on paper it appears that the system pretty thoroughly separates the wheat from the chafe.


However, all that said, there are some big unanswered questions. For one, is this type of system suitable for the whole of the British university sector? So far schemes are in use for two small, specialised medical schools and only one large institution, Leeds University. With the tight controls placed by St George’s and Leeds replicated, the scheme could well ‘widen participation’, but statistically its impact will be negligible. Allowing an individual to get the best education and escape poverty (such as grammar schools did) is only a good thing, and should be considered. But as a tool for fostering greater social mobility this proposal will not count to much. The tough criteria would have to remain in place for the scheme to be credible, but only very few school pupils would be able to pass through such tests. It’s likely that the Government’s plans will do away with these candidate checks and pre-requisites, making the whole thing a bit of a sham.


There is also a danger that some of the worst – but bureaucratically appealing - bits of current schemes could replicated. For instance Kings College has an arbitary allocation of 50 places set aside for lower income students from London and Kent, with reduced grade requirements. Though they then have a catch-up year before joining the main medicine course, the fact that they are automatically allocated places is the aspect that most University application managers are fearful of; Government backed ‘quotas’ for every university.


Finally, top universities and top courses do demand A-Levels in certain subjects. A major problem for many pupils is that their schools just can’t provide the teaching to the appropriate standard. These new proposals should rectify the problem a little in terms of university applicantions, but they continue to address just one small symptom of a much wider malaise. University is not the be-all and end all, and the Government is being cowardly in its efforts to shift responsiblity for social mobility on to those who decide who gets into a university, and who does not. What goes on in the primary and secondary school class room, is much, much more important for the general educational, economic and social well being of people. Critically, unlike universities, these are parts of the process that the Government has direct control over. Funny then they run away from dealing with the root causes of low university uptake among poor pupils.


Understandably, the media has boiled down Lord Mandelson’s comments to the bare essentials, leaping to conclusions before the detail is out. But they are working from experience. Good schemes, such as those at St Georges, are beaten out of shape by the Government’s tireless pursuit of headlines, and inexhaustible capacity to duck tough choices in education.

News emerged over the weekend of Government plans to ‘head start’ disadvantaged pupils in the scramble for university places (BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph). The plan – to be presented in the Higher Education Framework released in the autumn – will see applicants from schools in disadvantaged areas (high proportions of children on free school meals) given a two grade advantage over their peers from more affluent schools. In other words, a standard ABB threshold will be lowered to a BBC threshold for poorer applicants.


To a former state school pupil who believes in equality of competition, the plan originally smacked of misguided positive discrimination. But once one picks beneath the headline, the proposal is not quite as clear cut as it first seems. At least that is, if the Government actually thinks before it acts.


The proposal is based on the experiences of trial schemes run by Leeds University and two London medical schools. At St George's Medical School the standard requirements for a place to study medicine is three A’s at A-level. However, candidates can be given grade offers as low as two B’s and a C if they have outperformed their school average by 60 per cent.


It’s this last part that really makes the scheme interesting. Outperforming a school average by 60 per cent – even if the schools average is depressingly low – is a significant achievement. In successful, predominantly middle class state schools, higher average grades (majority of pupils getting A’s and B’s) surpassing the school average by such an extent would be impossible. But in a struggling state school, mirred in a poor area with low levels of employment and high levels of delinquency, the achievement is only possible by the brighteset and most committed. Perhaps such achievement should be acknowledged.


It is worth noting that the system deployed by St George’s still demands that pupils study Chemistry and Biology at A-Level. The widely panned General and Media Studies courses won’t cut the mustard. Furthermore, all students are interviewed before offers confirmed. At Leeds, eligible applicants must also pass an introductory course before winning the place. There is little ammunition to the argument that ill-equipped, uncommitted and weaker educated candidates would be blindly accepted by universities over more suitable traditional background ones. Indeed, on paper it appears that the system pretty thoroughly separates the wheat from the chafe.


However, all that said, there are some big unanswered questions. For one, is this type of system suitable for the whole of the British university sector? So far schemes are in use for two small, specialised medical schools and only one large institution, Leeds University. With the tight controls placed by St George’s and Leeds replicated, the scheme could well ‘widen participation’, but statistically its impact will be negligible. Allowing an individual to get the best education and escape poverty (such as grammar schools did) is only a good thing, and should be considered. But as a tool for fostering greater social mobility this proposal will not count to much. The tough criteria would have to remain in place for the scheme to be credible, but only very few school pupils would be able to pass through such tests. It’s likely that the Government’s plans will do away with these candidate checks and pre-requisites, making the whole thing a bit of a sham.


There is also a danger that some of the worst – but bureaucratically appealing - bits of current schemes could replicated. For instance Kings College has an arbitary allocation of 50 places set aside for lower income students from London and Kent, with reduced grade requirements. Though they then have a catch-up year before joining the main medicine course, the fact that they are automatically allocated places is the aspect that most University application managers are fearful of; Government backed ‘quotas’ for every university.


Finally, top universities and top courses do demand A-Levels in certain subjects. A major problem for many pupils is that their schools just can’t provide the teaching to the appropriate standard. These new proposals should rectify the problem a little in terms of university applicantions, but they continue to address just one small symptom of a much wider malaise. University is not the be-all and end all, and the Government is being cowardly in its efforts to shift responsiblity for social mobility on to those who decide who gets into a university, and who does not. What goes on in the primary and secondary school class room, is much, much more important for the general educational, economic and social well being of people. Critically, unlike universities, these are parts of the process that the Government has direct control over. Funny then they run away from dealing with the root causes of low university uptake among poor pupils.


Understandably, the media has boiled down Lord Mandelson’s comments to the bare essentials, leaping to conclusions before the detail is out. But they are working from experience. Good schemes, such as those at St Georges, are beaten out of shape by the Government’s tireless pursuit of headlines, and inexhaustible capacity to duck tough choices in education.

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