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Simon Hughes on fair access to universities: right diagnosis, wrong prescription
10/01/2011 17:28:00

In his new role as Advocate for Access to Education, Simon Hughes has said that too few pupils from state schools get in to our top universities and that each university's intake should reflect the make-up of the school population as a whole. With just 7.2% of pupils going to independent schools, that would mean no university should recruit more than 7.2% of its students from such schools.

Before I comment, I should declare an interest: I went to an independent school (Trinity School in Shirley) and am currently the Chairman of the Governors there.

Simon is right that too few pupils from state schools get in to our top universities but his remedy seems to be based on the idea that it is our top universities who are to blame for this state of affairs, that it is they who need to change. The evidence suggests that with a few exceptions this is not the case.

To get into one of our top universities you need excellent A Level grades. So rather than looking at what percentage of pupils go to independent schools, we should look at what percentage of pupils who get such grades go to independent schools.

Here we see a very different picture. The House of Commons Library doesn't have data for the school background of pupils who get, say, 2 As and a B or better so as a proxy I have looked at the school background of A Level entries that were graded A or A*. In 2010, 28% of such entries were from independent school pupils.

So how many of the Russell Group universities take significantly more than 28% of their students from independent schools? The answer is just 5 out of 20 - Bristol (40%), Cambridge (41%), Imperial College (38%), Oxford (45%) and UCL (36%). Even in these cases, that doesn't necessarily tell us that they are discriminating against state school pupils - it may be that able state school pupils are not applying in sufficient numbers because they don't think they will get in and/or fit in - but either way this is clearly something those universities need to address.

So if the problem is not by and large with our top universities, where is it? The answer is with many, though not all, of our state schools. Nationally, we know - because Michael Gove had the courage to publish the figures - that just 15% of pupils get 5 A*-C GCSEs in maths, english, a foreign language, a science and a humanity. Without good academic GCSEs, pupils have no prospect of studying the right A Levels to get into a top university. So if we want to address the under-representation of state school pupils in our top universities - and I certainly do - we should focus on raising standards in our state schools. That means sufficient money focused on pupils from less well off backgrounds who the current system is failing and a drive to improve leadership and the quality of teaching and learning - all things the Government Simon and I support is doing.

But even if spending per pupil in state schools was as high as in independent schools and if the quality of teaching was the same, we should still expect a higher proportion of independent school pupils to get into our top universities. Why? Because many of those schools are academically selective - they are teaching brighter pupils - and because, given their parents are in many cases investing thousands of pounds a year in their children's education, they are likely on average to have more support at home.

The problem with Simon's remedy is that it would do grave damage to our top universities, which are one of this country's greatest assets. Admission to such universities should be on the basis of ability alone. By all means seek to assess underlying ability rather than just looking at GCSE, AS and predicted A2 grades (there is some evidence that state school pupils do better at university than independent pupils with similar A Level grades) but seeking to make things fairer by leveling down is emblematic of what has gone wrong with our education system over the last 40 years.

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