Thursday, January 13, 2011

State schools, private schools, universities: here we go again

Here I go on a familiar hobby horse.

Ed Long has a very good article on Liberal Democrat Voice, much of his analysis being persuasive, even if I don't really agree with his conclusions. He rightly takes Simon Hughes to task for suggesting that universities should operate quotas for the number of students from private schools that they admit.

Ed correctly points out that universities have to select the students who appear most likely to succeed at their courses, that the problems start further back in the education process and that university admissions departments aren't to blame if a disproportionate number of students with top A Level grades in prestigious academic subjects come from private schools.

However, I'm not so sure about the suggestion that state schools encourage students to take softer subjects in which they are more likely to do well and boost league table scores, but which are less impressive to universities. I can well see the perverse incentive to schools, but my dear wife who taught in comprehensive schools for many years says she has never known this happen. I can believe that there are more opportunities to study classics at private schools and that this helps students to win places on classics courses at Oxbridge. On the other hand it really wouldn't be a kindness for a state school to encourage someone to study a notoriously difficult subject like maths at A level if they may not be up to it. The result wouldn't be an A grade in a prestigious subject, but one fewer A level.

I also have my doubts about Ed's alternative to Simon's prescription, namely that we need:

gifted state pupils being supported to achieve 3 As at A Level if it is within their grasp, through mentoring schemes, after-school clubs and so on; Modern Languages, Classics and hard science subjects being pushed harder in state sixth forms and colleges; and more high-achieving state pupils being encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge – especially to under-represented degree subjects

Of course I am all for state school students being encouraged and helped to fulfil their potential, including gaining a place on their preferred course at their preferred university. But Ed's argument (and the universal voices in support on the comments thread) seems to take it as read that if schools have spare resources their top priority should be to make sure their best students earn places at Oxbridge (rather than ensuring that the merely able, or even the less able, fulfil their potential.)

Which brings me on to the hobby horse. Let us hypothesise two equally bright and able 'A level' students, one at a private school that prides itself on getting students into Oxbridge, one at a state school with less of a track record in that department. With the help of vast support and experience from their school (what to write on the application form, what to say at interview) the first student gets into Oxbridge. The second (despite getting the same or similar grades) wins a place at Hull or Keele or wherever. Why is this a big deal? Both are at respected universities, both can take a degree and advantage of all the academic and other opportunities higher education provides, both can use this as a springboard for whatever career they wish to pursue. What is the problem?

Of course! Going to Oxford or Cambridge or a couple of other elite institutions marks the student for life as among the brightest and the best. Going anywhere else relegates them to the also rans, even if they have comparable A level grades to their Oxbridge counterparts. I believe that some employers only recruit from Oxbridge - so better a lower second from Christ Church, Oxford than a high first from Oxford Brookes.

During these periodic bouts of public agonising about this topic, just perhaps we should consider whether the national culture of snobbery about academic institutions, and the apparent belief that a small number of universities are not just top of the league, but in a different league altogether, is part of the problem.

Obligatory declaration of interest required when discussing such issues: My secondary education was partly in the private and partly in the state sector. I studied as an undergraduate at Leicester University. But just possibly my views are the result of attempts at rational thought rather than conditioned by my educational background.

1 comment:

Darren said...

A common pothole in the sensible disscusion of education, one in which Ed Long has fallen into, is to assume that the educational priorties of all children are the same. For the independant sector university enrolment, especially the elete institutions, seems to be a major if not the main focus of secondary and further education. The case for the state sector however, is far more complicated than this. There are a percentage of children who share this academic priority but they are not even close to being the majority. Another group of children are being readied for the world of employment, being given the skills to earn a half decent living in a particular trade. These children make up the vast majority of children in the state education system but due to the Labour Party's focus on university admission numbers they have often been marginalised or encouraged to take academic courses which are unsuitable to thier needs. This coalition gogernment is extending this marginalisation with its new EBac qualification. Smart children who would be better suited to a route other than academia are now being pushed in that direction because of the flawed assumtion that a more academic education is a 'better' education for everyone.