In the midst of our continuing and obsessively class-conscious war between state and private education, elitism and access, positive discrimination and laissez-faire, a study commissioned by the Department for Education has found that students from comprehensives tend to perform better at University than grammar or privately-educated students with the same GCSE and A-level results. In a seemingly sensible bit of logical progression, the study has suggested that universities ‘may wish to consider lowering their entry requirements for pupils from non-selective or low-value-added state schools’, but stopped short of actually detailing what this might entail in practice.
In many ways, it’s about time that someone had the courage to face up to this rather thorny question in our education system’s side. It’s been reasonably clear for a long time that, in general (and I really do mean in general), privately educated students perform better at GCSE & A-level than their state-funded counterparts, and that grammar school students sit somewhere in the middle. If you look at the facts of it, this would make sense. On average, the pupil-teacher ratio in state schools is 1:22, whilst in private schools it’s only 1:9 – a vast difference.
The prohibitively hefty fees that these schools charge allow them to spend more money on resources, buildings, facilities, and teachers, meaning that (in general) they can afford to take more individualistic approaches, attract and hire better-qualified and better-performing teachers (though it’s important to note the two are in no way conclusively linked), and better prepare students for the game (and I use the word deliberately) of university applications, and of Oxbridge applications in particular.
It therefore makes perfect sense that these children perform better at school, and are often more comparatively successful when it comes to university applications (7% are privately educated nationwide vs 37% of Cantabs). Add in the new revelation that it is the students from state (in particular non-selective) schools that perform better when it comes to actual degree results, and it’s not surprising that there are growing calls for a change of tactic. If the country’s top universities are to keep hold of their academic clout, it makes sense for them to consciously pursue those who will perform best at degree level. Presuming that this is their goal, it’s only logical for them to lower admissions requirements for these students (or, conversely, raise them for the others) so as to continue to ensure that all students who get in will have the capacity to achieve the very top results at degree level.
However, I can almost hear the clamorous cries of ‘classical-liberal’ private school kids everywhere rising up in abhorrence at such a hideous violation of the principles of equality and fairness (albeit in their most crude and basic forms), and other TCS darlings have joined their ranks. In their defence, they have a point. In recent decades, the point that universities have time and time again tried to push is that they want to admissions a level playing field for applicants. This has meant standardised offers across subjects (eg. A*AA for Cambridge humanities) and extensive access tours to particular schools to combat the fact that pupils from these schools are often less likely to apply and, thus, get in. It’s also, thankfully for most of us, led to a move away from the ridiculous and unhelpful interview questions of Oxbridge’s infamous past – questions that played into the hands of the uselessly hyper-trained, uber-lateral, wit-wizened alumni of public schools across the country.
More disturbingly, though, it can appear almost insulting to students from these schools. It highlights and draws even greater attention to their apparent ‘disadvantage’, a process which has been shown to further increase any existing lack of confidence. A good friend of mine proudly (and quite rightly) posted a status on the day he got his A-level results saying that he’d met (and indeed exceeded) his university offer without needing fees, selection, or privilege. Why, then, should the hard work and efforts of state educated students be patronised in such a blatant way? What would the reaction be, for example, if girls were given lower entry requirements because of the disadvantages to their education that mixed-sex classroom environments have been shown to cause? Such a condescending approach would be cut down almost immediately, and we should not rush to endorse a similar one without careful thought.
It’s also rather lazy. Yet again, our neatly categorising, statistics-driven world has come up trumps, adopting an approach that arbitrarily putting people in boxes, dividing them further and contributing to the hugely unhelpful class-obsessed culture by which Britain is already plagued to a debilitating extent. I grew up in a world in which snow days at school were defined by the arrival of the local state school kids at my (I’ll admit it) private school’s walls armed with hefty ice missiles (the term ‘snowball’ does their creations no justice) for bouts of sectarian violence that had been known to lead to threats of police intervention, the last thing we need is more divisiveness in our approaches to tackling inequality.
What we do need is an approach that is human and not statistic; one that is focussed on the individual and not standardised. Universities, schools, and policy-makers need to do more to gather more detailed and wide-ranging information about applicants. This might mean making class performance count in the education process, using a ‘GPA’ approach similar to that of the US. Students who are attentive, hard-working, and thoughtful in class, but who struggle in exam conditions, or are ill-prepared by their teachers, would not suffer in favour of those who are lazy, coasting, and mediocre in class but able to ‘wing it’ on the day through a combination of thorough, circus-like exam technique training, and a mind that performs better under exam conditions. This might mean interviewing a greater proportion of candidates at a greater number of universities – with admissions departments prioritising and investing in personal interaction with applicants at the kind of high rates (c.80%) that Cambridge manages so as to allow for a case-by-case analysis of applicants based on detailed interpersonal information (though this process is known to have its flaws in some sectors).
Fundamentally, though, what we need is to be honest about the state of our education system and to address its problems at their base – where they exist, without arbitrary reform for reform’s sake – and not just fiddle with cosmetic changes at later stages in the process.
Dividing ourselves further is not the answer. We need to be brave enough to create an education system that is about people and not just about grades; one that is about individuals and not standards, personality and not performance.
Published in The Cambridge Student (8th June, 2014)