The proportion of pupils from independent and state selective schools attending top universities is greater than the proportion of pupils from comprehensives. This fact has been used to criticise comprehensive schools. But what are the reasons for this discrepancy? Possible answers are:
1 Independents and grammars have a sixth form curriculum geared towards entry to top universities.
2 Pupils at independents and grammars are more likely to receive careers information and guidance which steers them towards top universities.
3 Parents of pupils in independents and grammars are more likely to expect their children to apply to top universities. They are also more likely to be able to provide financial support.
4 University tuition fees may deter poorer students from applying to certain universities.
Comprehensive schools are criticised because the proportion of their sixth-formers attending top universities is lower than the proportion in independents and grammars. But to compare comprehensive schools with independents and grammars is not comparing like with like. Comprehensive schools cater for a wider range of ability and needs so the proportion going to university is likely to be smaller. This should not be used as an excuse to bash comprehensive schools especially as pupils from such schools are likely to outperform
their equally-qualified peers from independent and grammar schools at university.
The danger in judging schools on the destinations of their pupils risks schools steering pupils into courses which are not suitable or to a university which might not meet their needs. That said, careers education and guidance in schools should ensure that decisions made about which GCSEs and A levels to study does not impact negatively on post-18 education choices.
So how can the proportion of comprehensive schools pupils going to top universities be increased? Improving careers education and guidance is one way. Raising aspirations is another – universities and organisations like the Sutton Trust are involved in outreach programmes and such activities as Summer Schools to persuade disadvantaged children that university is a viable option. However, suggestions such as those proposed by Sir Peter Lampl
that universities consider context when offering places are met with a storm of protest
But perhaps the discussion should shift away from how many pupils attend top universities as if this were the only desirable goal. Perhaps politicians and commentators should be asking another question: how can schools best prepare pupils for adult life which for about 50% of pupils will not involve university education? The latter group seems to be ignored except by those schools and colleges which cater for them – but schools and colleges that provide for this group are viewed as second-rate, even failing. Yes, all children should be given the chance to fulfil their potential - and that includes those who will not attend university. As Newsom said way back in 1963, they are “Half our future