Evidence undermines admissions rhetoric 1

March 25, 2010

I was surprised to read the piece by Geoff Lucas denouncing research showing that all other things being equal, state-school students obtain better degrees than independent-school pupils ("Uneven playing fields", 18 March).

First, it is unsurprising that independent schools provide better preparation, and take their pupils further, than those with fewer resources to hand. But when independent-school pupils arrive at university, some (but not all) of this advantage is dissipated: it is not surprising that state-school pupils who achieve the same A levels subsequently do better. The difference is not great, but it is significant.

Lucas claims that the Higher Education Funding Council for England research that led to this conclusion has been "demolished". I have not seen any research that demolishes it. The University of Buckingham's Alan Smithers, to whom he refers, produced a literature review (commissioned by Lucas' organisation, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) and cautions that care is needed when using these conclusions to inform admissions - a fair point.

Since then there has been further research (looking only at the University of Oxford) that reached the same conclusion as Hefce (Zimdars, 2007). The only study I have seen addressing this issue but disagreeing was, again, Oxford-specific by McCrum et al (2006), who mistakenly claimed that the differences identified between students from state and independent schools could be explained by differences in the difficulty of getting good degrees at different universities. They failed to notice that the Hefce research specifically addressed this point.

It won't do for interest groups and others with axes to grind to misuse or misrepresent research in this way. It is incumbent on all involved with education to distinguish between evidence, rhetoric and opinion.

Bahram Bekhradnia, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute.

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