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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.