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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.