Education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to publish data showing how many pupils from individual schools go on to Russell Group universities is “narrow and naive”, according to his former top civil servant.
Sir David Bell, now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, was permanent secretary at the Department for Education when plans to publish the information were developed.
He told Times Higher Education that he was unhappy that the government had opted to focus on the Russell Group when compiling “destination data”, which were published for the first time last July.
“[The information] is based on a narrow understanding of what constitutes high-quality higher education,” he said. “I worry that the focus on the Russell Group is narrow and naive when it comes to the strength of the sector as a whole.”
When the Department for Education first released the data, it claimed they would give parents and the public better information when selecting “the right school or college for their child”.
But Sir David, who quit the department in October 2011 - although he has always denied that this was due to any friction with Mr Gove - said: “I regret that the DfE decided to concentrate its efforts on the Russell Group.”
Speaking to Times Higher Education in an exclusive podcast interview, he added: “I don’t think [the data] serve the cause of opening up higher education to a wider group of students. Not every student will want to follow a course in a Russell Group university, and not every Russell Group university offers excellent courses across all its suite of subjects.”
Headteachers have warned that the data create an incentive for schools to focus their efforts on getting students into Russell Group universities.
At Richmond Park Academy in London, head Lesley Kirby has introduced a dedicated pathway for students called the “Ebac/Russell” route, designed to give able students the best chance of gaining a place at a Russell Group institution.
The pathway, which students join before starting their GCSEs at 14, was “massively influenced” by the Department for Education’s decision to publish destination data, Ms Kirby said.
“We are a school working really hard to become outstanding, and this is one of the ways parents can see how we are doing,” she said.
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We have been worried for years about the perverse incentives caused by accountability measures such as this.” Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, distanced herself from the data, saying they “are a matter for the government”.
But she added: “However, in general we welcome the publication of indicators helping pupils and parents to make choices about their place of study.”
Last month, the Department for Education also published data showing how many students were awarded three A levels at AAB grade or above in “facilitating subjects” - a term used by the Russell Group to describe those disciplines it considers most desirable.
The list contains many traditional academic subjects, but it has been criticised for overlooking disciplines such as economics and philosophy.
In an open letter to Dr Piatt published earlier this month, Hilda Clarke, head of Tiffin School in Kingston upon Thames, writes that the list of subjects could prompt an “irreversible decline in non-facilitating subjects” at A level.
Ms Kirby said there was no doubt that certain subjects such as religious studies, drama and music were being “seriously squashed” by the Department for Education’s focus on facilitating subjects.
Dr Piatt said she welcomed the subject data, as “too few students realise that some subjects and subject combinations can keep open wider degree- course options at leading universities”. She added: “However, it would be wrong to use this simple indicator as a measure of the number of pupils in a school who are qualified to apply successfully to a Russell Group university. We encourage all prospective students to check the entry requirements for their chosen course before applying.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said that publishing the percentage of young people going to Russell Group universities was “just one part” of its work challenging schools to get more students into prestigious institutions.
“However, we know that membership of the Russell Group is not the only measure of university excellence and are investigating alternative options for this year,” he added.