Alan Ryan

October 29, 2004

Class warfare starts in the womb and newly dreamt-up admissions tariffs are a blunt instrument with which to fight it

Funny things, numbers. There we are with the Department for Education and Skills insisting on A-level students getting their key numeracy skills and nobody in the DFES or the Higher Education Funding Council for England spotted what had happened to the benchmarks with which Sir Martin Harris was going to have to work. (By the way, does anyone besides me think that it's a bit of a joke to have a knight of the realm in command of OffToff?) Some years ago, the late Tony Higgins, as chief executive of the then Universities Central Council for Admissions, dreamt up the "tariff" as one of a number of bright wheezes to make Ucca into something more than a postal service passing applications for university places from applicants to universities. This was supposed to assist universities that filled a lot of their places at clearing by giving them a sort of ready-reckoner by which they could compute the readiness for higher education of students who had qualifications other than A levels.

How useful it has been isn't clear. For almost any course, what a student has done in particular areas is more important than whether they have 120 or 140 points. A student with 240 points - achieved with two As in A2 maths and further maths - would be a better bet for an economics degree than one with 380 points obtained with 4 Cs at A2 in, let us say, theatre studies, French, philosophy and art, allied to some level 3 key skills. When asked about all this, Higgins insisted that the tariff was for recruiting universities and that the selecting universities would be unaffected.

So, Tony's Tariff came in alongside the traditional A-level points scores.

Then Hefce produced benchmarks for the proportion of state-school entrants to different universities and others for entrants ranked by social class.

Although they were compiled by Bahram Bekhradnia, who is both a statistical genius and utterly dispassionate, the state-school benchmarks never carried complete conviction. They appear to overestimate state-school performance in what are, no doubt insultingly, known as "hard" A levels. But they were at any rate based on A levels.

Bekhradnia retired; the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service ceased to publish data by A-level scores and published it only by tariff points; and someone in Hefce appears to have concluded that since three As at A2 got you 360 points, the old benchmarks based on 3As could be translated into tariff-ese. At which point, all hell broke loose. Michael Beloff, president of Trinity College, Oxford, gave a masterly imitation of Harold Wilson telling trade unionist Hughie Scanlon to get his tanks off the Downing Street lawn. Hefce issued a press release pointing out that it had no intention of cutting anyone's budget because they didn't meet the benchmarks - which had no effect whatever on the press - and it took everyone other than the Cambridge University admissions office an astonishingly long time to work out what had happened.

If you want to know what sort of points score a Cambridge candidate probably would have, it's easy to use the calculator on the Ucas website.

With As in four A2 exams, and three top scores in your key skills, you'd have 570 tariff points - and a one in four chance of admission. So much for benchmarks. But those of us who believe in old-fashioned class warfare are not amused.

The recent furore obscures the familiar truth that the deep divide is not between state and private schools, but between the children of the better-off and the children of the worse-off. Eighty per cent of social class I goes into higher education, and 15 per cent of social class V; that 15 per cent goes disproportionately to the sort of "recruiting" university that cannot ask for much in the way of qualifications. The better-off send their children to private schools or good state schools; the worse-off take what they are given, bar the few who have the good luck to catch the eye of someone who can help them up the ladder. In all of this, Britain isn't worse than most comparable countries; but it isn't better, either.

Clause 4 of the old Labour Party constitution lumped the population together as "workers by hand and brain", but more than 50 per cent of the children of the workers by brain (class I to IIIn) go into higher education compared with a bare 20 per cent of the children of the workers by hand (class IIIm-V). I'm all in favour of Sir Martin's wish to eliminate class prejudice wherever he finds it; but getting another 50 properly qualified students from social class V into Oxford will not do much to remedy the unfairnesses that start in the womb. Putting OffToff's budget into SureStart would do more for social justice than any number of access agreements - and everyone knows it.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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