Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty
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Universities urged to lower grade requirements for comprehensive pupils

A canny move by the Department for Education.

The perennial call for universities to lower their admissions requirements for less privileged students has hit the news again today. 

Only this time, the demand is based on new research indicating that comprehensive school kids have more academic potential than their privileged peers educated at grammars and independent schools.

According to the new study, which was commissioned by the Department for Education (fancy that) and conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Warwick University, pupils from non-selective state schools outperformed their independent-school peers, who had the same A-level grades, at university.

It confirms similar research conducted by England’s Higher Education Funding Council in the past.

The DfE report published today said:

When we compare pupils with the same background characteristics … pupils from independent and selective state schools, those from state schools with a low proportion of free school meal-eligible pupils and those from high-value-added state schools are now significantly more likely to drop out, significantly less likely to complete their degree and significantly less likely to graduate with a first or a 2:1 than their counterparts in non-selective state schools, state schools with a high proportion of FSM-eligible pupils and low-value-added state schools respectively.”

It’s hardly a surprise to me. The ambitious ex-comprehensive students who had overcome tougher odds to get to Oxford while I was there tended to have more spark and thirst for success than the entitled ex-private or -grammar school students.

The report goes on in a notably cautious tone to suggest, ever so gently, that as a result of its conclusions, universities might want to think about lowering admissions for pupils from non-selective states schools.

It states:

While we cannot point to specific changes that should be made to the entry offers of particular universities, these results provide suggestive evidence that universities may wish to consider lowering their entry requirements for pupils from non-selective or low-value-added state schools (relative to pupils from selective or high-value-added state schools, or independent schools) in order to equalise the potential of students being admitted from these different types of school."

The conciliatory tone is no doubt wise, however, because when Labour first floated such proposals in 2009 in a rather more haughty voice, the backlash was deafening.

Lord Mandelson, then Business Secretary, with responsibility for universities, exhorted universities to accept lower grades from students with potential, but a difficult home life or poor schooling, as part of sweeping higher education reforms.

While the government then, as now, was unable to force universities to alter their admissions policies, Mandelson’s robust rhetoric was clearly intended to heap pressure on them to acquiesce. His proposals included extending a two-grade “head start” to pupils from deprived postcode areas or bad schools, affording them entry requirements that were two A-level grades lower than those demanded of private or grammar school applicants.

Naturally the universities were furious about the interference, and the middle classes hysterical about the prospect of discrimination against their children.

At first glance, the DfE nudge towards universities today is an odd move. Ideologically, it seems to fly in the face of the traditional rightwing aversion towards positive discrimination.

But it is, in fact, a canny move.  Under the last government, Labour’s calls for lower admissions for comprehensive pupils left it wide open to criticism that the need for such positive discrimination was a damning indictment of its failure to improve state schools.

The DfE's calls today indicate the opposite: under the Tories, the state education system is so good that it provides pupils with higher potential than their private and grammar school peers. And that is why universities should aid mobility with varied grade entry requirements.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.