The week in higher education

September 18, 2008

A US-style aptitude test, proposed by government advisers to help disadvantaged teens get into university, favours white boys from grammar schools, researchers say. The use of American SATs - which test the maths, critical thinking and writing skills of prospective students - was recommended by the Schwartz inquiry into university admissions, but a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that the test may have the opposite effect from that intended, The Independent reported on 11 September. "Some students appeared to perform less well on the SAT than expected: females compared to males and Asian, Chinese and those whose ethnicity was unknown compared to white students, whereas students from grammar schools did better than might be expected compared to comprehensive students," the researchers said.

The tireless drive to increase the number of state-school pupils at elite institutions drew the wrath of the University of Cambridge's vice-chancellor. Alison Richard used a speech at the Universities UK conference, widely reported on 11 September, to remind ministers that universities exist to educate and research, not as "engines for promoting social justice". John Denham, the Universities Secretary, responded in his address, insisting that it was the sector's "duty" to promote social justice and warning that institutions would "ultimately miss out" if they failed to tap into the talents of poor students.

A furore that erupted when the Royal Society's education director suggested that science teachers should discuss creationism in schools was not quelled when he insisted that he had been misquoted. Michael Reiss provoked a flurry of headlines after addressing the BA Festival of Science, where he is reported to have said that it would be self-defeating to dismiss as wrong the 10 per cent of pupils who believe in creationism and that it would be better to discuss their views. Professor Reiss, who is an ordained minister of the Church of England, reacted to the coverage by claiming that he had been misrepresented. He said: "Creationism, which has no scientific validity, can be discussed in a science class if it is raised by a pupil, but should in no way be seen as comparable to evolution." His hedging did not stop several fellows of the Royal Society calling for his head. One, Richard Dawkins, told The Guardian on 13 September: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch."

Meanwhile, the Church of England revealed that it had "deep concerns" about the spread of creationist views as it announced plans for a website to promote theories of evolution. Anglican leaders fear that "noisy" advocates of creationism, particularly in the US, were damaging the reputation of Christianity worldwide, The Times reported on 13 September.

Critics who write off the new 14-19 diploma are "really depressing", and the future of A levels is "not set in stone", Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has said. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph on 13 September that marked the launch of a new cookery book for schools, Mr Balls said the diploma scheme was "the best chance we've ever had" to improve the standing of vocational education. He also "hinted A levels face the axe", the paper reported, saying: "I don't think they are set in stone ... there may be a better model."

"First-class degrees up by 50 per cent in a decade", the Daily Mail headline said on 16 September. Reporting on Universities UK's annual "patterns of higher education" report, the Mail noted that the first-class degree, which has "traditionally been reserved for students who showed exceptional breadth of original work", is now awarded to 12 per cent of students - and as many as 35 per cent at one, unnamed, institution.

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