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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Northern Ireland is another Brexit circle Theresa May must square

The Prime Minister's promise to avoid border controls could collide with the imperative of limiting EU immigration. 

For much of the EU referendum, Theresa May shrewdly adopted the low profile of a "reluctant Remainer". One of her few memorable interventions was over Northern Ireland. During a visit to the province (which voted Remain by 56-44), the then home secretary said that it was "inconceivable" that new border controls would not be imposed in the event of Brexit. "If we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there’d have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland," May warned. "And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?"

Yet as prime minister, May has visited Northern Ireland today with a diametrically opposed message. She will support the Irish government's stance that there should be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that passport-free travel should continue. 

There is an awareness among the EU of the disruptive effect that new controls would have on the peace process. "It's a special situation and it has to be found a special place in the negotiations," François Hollande said during a recent meeting with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. But how special, like so much else, depends on the deal the UK strikes with the rest of the EU. If Britain imposes limited controls on free movement (such as an "emergency brake") and, at the very least, maintains visa-free travel, it will easier to maintain present arrangements with Northern Ireland. But should May bow to pressure from Conservative MPs and others to fully end free movement, it will be harder to justify an open Irish border.

As in the case of Scotland, the imperative of preserving the UK collides with the imperative of unifying the Tories. "Brexit means Brexit," May has repeatedly stated. But beyond leaving the EU, there is no agreement on what this means. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the best Brexit would be a "soft" version that preserves as much of the status quo as possible (through Single Market membership). But Tory MPs and many Leave supporters voted for a harder variety. Reconciling these poles will be the defining task of May's premiership. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.