Uneven playing fields

The sector must stop its Eton-bashing and its discrimination against independent-school students, argues Geoff Lucas

March 18, 2010

When Britain's top vice-chancellor joins the prime minister in citing Eton College, it's time to start getting one or two things straight.

Admittedly, Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and president of Universities UK, did not refer to Eton's playing fields, but he was quoted last month as saying: "Is it reasonable to say if I went to Eton and got AAB it might put me in the top 60 per cent (of its pupils), but going to a poor school, your AAB might put you in the top 5 per cent? Which person has probably got more potential?"

Professor Smith is entitled to his opinions. But he goes on to support his argument by citing research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which purported to show that state-school pupils with the same A-level grades go on to achieve better degrees than their independently educated counterparts. And he is not alone. Many other vice-chancellors parrot the same evidence - uncritically and, I suspect, in too many cases unread.

Were this just a matter of cocktail-party conversation, it may not matter greatly. When, however, it threatens to become the basis for policies of positive discrimination in favour of one group of students over another, it matters a great deal, particularly when the policy of making differential grade offers is done in the name of "fair admissions".

The fact is that the Hefce evidence has already been demolished. Alan Smithers conducted a wide-ranging review of all the research literature on "schooling effects" - that is, the effect that attendance at particular kind of schools has on subsequent performance at university - in 2008. This concluded that Hefce's headline findings, and that of similar studies, were unsafe.

First, as Hefce's report said, schooling effects were "complex and small compared to the effects of individuals' prior attainment". In other words, a candidate's A-level grades were by far the most important predictor. Second, factors other than schooling - notably gender and ethnicity - have a far greater effect than type of school attended.

Third, and perhaps most damningly, when trying to analyse the schooling effect specifically, no like-for-like comparison was possible because A-level grades could not be disaggregated from the A-level points scored. Had this been possible, the Hefce report commented, "we might have made a different assessment of schooling effects".

Furthermore, what does "degree success" mean? Degrees are not like A levels, whose standards are supposed to be guaranteed, wherever and in whatever subject they are taken. Put crudely, a 2:1 in theoretical physics at University A probably indicates a higher level of academic attainment than a first in leisure management at University B. The 2007 Burgess review of degree classifications came as close as vice-chancellors were likely to concede that degree classifications were no longer reliable across British higher education.

Finally, Professor Smithers noted that even if all these methodological flaws could be overcome, if it were still found that undergraduates from state-school backgrounds did slightly better at university overall, this would hardly be surprising. Data from the National Child Development Study show that independent and grammar schools are more likely to "educate most pupils to close to the top of their potential".

Is it too much to hope that Professor Smith, if he has read the Hefce research, would take a more critical view of its findings? He would have no excuse to have not read the Schwartz report on fair admissions, one of whose principles is that "it is not appropriate to treat one applicant automatically more or less favourably by virtue of his or her background, school or college". Yet this is what Professor Smith appears to be advocating.

This might not matter were he just an individual vice-chancellor. But this is the same Professor Smith who represents Universities UK, who led the higher education strand of the government's National Council for Educational Excellence and who also chairs the government's HE Ambassadors Group. Surely it is beholden on people like him to base what they say on evidence? Or was such a policy simply dreamed up on the playing fields of Exeter?

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