Simon Hughes needs to take a more nuanced approach to university access

Fiona Millar's picture
I think I am going to enjoy Simon Hughes period as the university access Tsar.  He so desperately wants to brand himself as a progressive firebrand that he can’t help shooting from the hip, then he invariably rows back and doesn’t quite deliver ( ie fulminating, then abstaining and not voting against the hike in tuition fees).

His appointment will probably end up being a PR disaster for the Coalition, and most enjoyable to watch from the sidelines, especially as there is already simmering anger among some private school parents about the perception that their offspring are being discriminated against when it comes to university access.

Since Christmas I have heard from, or of, several different families who are blaming the fact that their children didn’t get into Oxford on the fact that they went to private schools. Hughes’ comments this morning that he thinks the proportion of pupils from private schools going to the most selective universities should reflect the percentage of pupils in private schools (7%) will certainly make the pips squeak. At the moment private school pupils take up around 25% of places at the most selective universities and around 46% at Oxbridge.

However much as I want to see the bias in access to the top universities change, I think this is the wrong approach. One of the problems with this debate, articulated again in the remarks from Wendy Piatt from the Russell Group this morning, blaming comprehensive schools for the problem,  is that it allows commentators, the elite university sector and Tory politicians to maintain the myth that there is an equivalence between the average private school and the average comprehensive when it comes to judging exam success . But they are completely different types of school and this dishonest comparison means the state sector will lose out time and time again.

Comprehensive schools are just that, comprehensive, taking pupils of all abilities and from all social and economic background. The 7% of school age pupils in private schools meanwhile are largely from affluent families and have to pass a selective entry test to get into their schools, so are already predisposed to elite university access.

We should be celebrating that difference and acknowledging that the great strength of the comprehensive system, when it works well, is that it offers all young people not only excellent teaching and the chance to  pursue a broad curriculum, but also the route to a  wide range of high quality further, higher education  and career choices. And many do get the top qualifications .In 2008/9 75% of pupils gaining 3 A grades at A level were in the state sector, including grammar, comprehensive, sixth form and FE colleges (yet only a just over half of Oxbridge places went to them). If you strip out the grammar schools, around 42 % of pupils who got the A's were in comprehensives and the FE/sixth form college sector.

We are rapidly, and subtly, being moved to a position where the only definition of success will be a ill thought through qualification ( the English Bac) and a place at an elite university. But just as the English Bac won't be the right combination of subjects for every pupil, going to a ' top' university won’t be the right choice either , and that includes for some middle class and private school educated pupils. What we need to ensure is that for those who feel it is the right choice, access is fair, regardless of social or economic background.Oxford and Cambridge in particular need to look at the way their admissions procedures work since they  undoubtedly benefit schools with the resources and expertise to prepare students and help them make strategically successful choices of courses and colleges, and this latter point shouldn't be underestimated. Schools meanwhile need to continue to build on existing fantastic work which is slowly raising the aspiration of more disadvantaged young people , even though that will be difficult with the abolition of the EMA.

Meanwhile amongst those students who do get the right grades for the most selective universities, by all means limit private school access to 7%  - even though that will mean reducing the number of places available to the children of some very vocal and articulate parents, especially if more disadvantaged children do achieve at A level - but don’t set comprehensive schools a bar over which they can’t jump by pretending they are the same as private schools because they aren’t. And don't forget there are other higher education routes that don't necessarily involve elite universities ( art, drama, design, textiles, music, nursing to name a few very high quality courses on which I have seen students excel ). Young people who chose them deserve to have their decisions respected too.
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dan clayton's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 18:39

"Since Christmas I have heard from, or of, several different families who are blaming the fact that their children didn’t get into Oxford on the fact that they went to private schools."

I hope you managed to contain your laughter; I don't know if I would be able to.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 20:09

There's been discussion before on this site as to whether top universities should discriminate in favour of comprehensive school pupils.

The main reason I don't like Hughes's latest wheeze is because it seems to start from the premise that private schools per se are better and that if you achieve good or excellent grades at your comprehensive school then your achievement is superior to your private school counterpart because the odds were stacked against you as you had an inferior education.

Fiona, when you say "amongst those students who do get the right grades for the most selective universities, by all means limit private school access to 7%," Simon Hughes seems to be going further than that by stating "every university should, wherever their fee level is, but specifically for a fee level above £6,000, recruit on the basis of no more people coming from the private sector than there are in the public as a whole." As I interpret it he thinks Oxbridge (and other Russell group universities) should be recruiting over 90% of pupils from the state sector even if the students have lower grades.

To think that Oxbridge should reduce their quota of private school pupils by 80% from 46% to under 10% is naive and unrealistic. It has to be accepted that many of the finest brains are in the private sector and should be rewarded with a top university education. That doesn't mean to say that most of those young people couldn't have achieved just as much in the state sector and qualified for Oxbridge but it would be wrong to discriminate against them on an idealogy biased against private pupils if they attain top exam grades.

While I agree with Fiona that some vocational and more conceptual courses like those mentioned won't always be available at elite universities and will need to be pursued in other institutions, it is worth saying that (unlike GCSEs and A'levels which have the same merit whether they're attained at Cheltenham Ladies College or Cheltenham Comprehensive) a low grade degree in an Arts subject often has more recognition if it's gained at Leicester University than perhaps a Science degree at De Montfort University (Leicester Poly). In other words if a good university offers the degree course you're seeking, then go for it rather than settling for a less established university.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 10:50

I think the point I was trying to make is that not everyone can go to a highly selective university and we need to find a better way of allocating the places so that social background and family income don't play such a great part in the process, while recognising that other paths also have merit, and that these will need to be taken by some pupils who are currently benefiting from the bias in university admissions ( which need a brave politician to manage given the bias in our media towards private schools). Managing this successfully will demand a lot of more careful though than is currently evident because responsibility for the current unfairness lies in so many places; inequality in society generally, the way our school system works and the way some universities pick their pupils. One of my fears now is that the government will rush into some cheap gimmicky options like a league table column ( probably conveniently next to the English Bac figures) that shows how many pupils from each school go to Russell Group universities and possibly either Oxford and Cambridge. This will then be used as a stick with which to beat certain schools and in turn will put more pressure on them to manipulate their admissions at 11 without really addressing the underlying problems.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 23:42

I agree with Fiona that we do need to have real variety in the choices that young people make at 14, 16, and 18; choice which is rapidly disappearing under this government. However, I can't help thinking that giving the Russell Group universities quotas of pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds is the only way that you're going to get them seriously thinking about collaborating with the relevant schools to change the situation we've got at the moment.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 01:02

I think a better solution would be guaranteeing an interview spot for the highest AS-scorer from each state school at Oxford/Cambridge, with feedback given to the school regarding the student's performance. This would help educate teachers in the schools who might not have any experience with Oxbridge, and once in front of tutors these pupils can either challenge the stereotype and show they are able, or they will (rightly) flounder and not be allowed in. Opportunity of equality is really all that is required here, I don't expect Oxford to start taking just anybody for the sake of social mobility -- hence, I am not a fan of quotas.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 19:58

Have to say Fiona, I haven't heard anything like this so far (about the league table columns for Russell Groups). The main reason I don't think it will happen is because the universities will all be arguing about whether or not they are included in it. For example, Durham will want to be included with Cambridge & Oxford, and not all the 'Russell Group' are as good as some of the 'non-RGs' these days. I expect what you could find is that schools are expected to publish anonymised destinations of all school leavers (e.g. course and university).

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 20:47

I am afraid that the last Labour government flirted with it at one stage! I will try and dig out the story from the time as I remember writing something about it. I think it fell between the Blair and Brown administrations.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 21:20

Simon Heffer of the Telegraph (who is miles to the right of the coalition) has just published some fairly forthright views here on Simon Hughes and this issue.

deb lewis's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 12:10

Surely the prospect of Oxbridge quotas (ignoring the most deprived schools) fails to address the fact that there are huge gaps between the top private schools and the average ones. Any parent with any intelligence and access to a good sixth form state college will now move their child there for sixth form and use the considerable money saved for extra tuition on the side. Unfortunately, some areas simply don't have these sorts of colleges and private school pupils there will be penalised. Treating all state as good and all private as bad is a huge over simplification. Hopefully the ISC will fight back, or else the government might find it needs to find a lot more money to educate children switching to state at sixth form whose parents have worked out that they need not pay hefty fees for no reason. Perhaps we should just select on post code and have done with it.

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