The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

Universities urged to lower grade requirements for comprehensive pupils

A canny move by the Department for Education.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty

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.