A-level reforms threaten moves to persuade more disadvantaged students to go to university, says Ucas chief

Mary Curnock Cook cited evidence that more students in state schools were already leaning towards vocational qualifications

Education Editor

Education Secretary Michael Gove's A-level reforms are in danger of wrecking government plans to persuade more disadvantaged students to go to university, the head of the admissions service has said.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, told a conference on Thursday they could have a "detrimental" effect on the number of young people from poorer homes studying academic qualifications.

She cited evidence which showed that a growing number of students in state schools were already shunning A-levels and leaning towards studying for a vocational qualifications.

In addition, while independent schools still virtually shunned vocational qualifications - only 1.1 per cent of their pupils taking them the figure for state schools was 37.9 per cent.  There had been a fivefold-growth since 2004.

"We all know about new tougher, more rigorous A-levels and these indeed might be desirable in themselves but I can't help anticipating that a public understanding that A-levels are getting more difficult is likely to increase this big trend towards vocational qualifications that we've seen," she said.

"Given that greater propensity for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds to do vocational qualifications, I believe this might well have a detrimental effect on some of these positive trends we've seen we've seen recently in widening participation and fair access (to universities)."

Figures showed the gap between those from poorer homes and the better off going to university had fallen in recent years.  Richer pupils were now 2.8 per cent more likely to go compared with 3.2 per cent two years ago.  However, they were still 7.2 per cent more likely to get into a Russell Group university (the group represents 24 of the most selective higher education institutions in the country).

The figures also showed that - whereas 85 per cent of independent school pupils applying to higher education made  applications to the more selective universities this year - the figure for state schools was 48 per cent. On acceptances, the respective figures were 69.6 per cent and 42.4 per cent.

She pit forward two reasons for this: on average non-selective state school pupils were three whole grades lower than independent and grammar schools in their A-level results.

In addition, only 53.2 per cent of state school pupils had studied the so-called "facilitating subjects" accepted by the most selective universities - compared to 72.4 per cent of independent school pupils.

"I think it's quite clear that higher-tariff institutions want to recruit those with academic qualifications such as A-levels," Ms Curnock Cook added.

"I think it's worth thinking about - if you have a done a BTEC in health and social care, you are very likely to progress on to a course in higher education in health and social care whereas if you've got three A-levels, you've got a choice of probably literally thousands of different courses to choose from.  So it's also a narrower progression route."

She said that schools were extremely "patchy" in the advice the gave to pupils over subject choices at A-level.

"Some schools are pushing young people into choices that help schools get their performance measures (i.e A-levels considered less hard)rather than doing the best thing for those young people," she said.  However, she conceded this could change with the scrapping of the five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English performance measure.

Ms Curnock Cook also drew attention to the growing disparity between the number of men and women applying for university places - 48 per cent of women were doing so compared to 37 per cent of men.

"Women are a third more likely to apply to higher education," she said.  "In fact, the situation has got so bad that there are more women in higher education than men applying."

Under Mr Gove's A-level reforms, students will no longer take modular exams throughout the year but face an end of two year test of their knowledge instead.  Questions will be sharper aimed at encouraging pupils to show thinking skills.  The new qualifications are due to be introduced in September 2015.  Ministers have insisted the reforms are necessary to prevent grade inflation and ensure A-levels keep their world-class status.

Meanwhile, latest figures from Ucas show applications for university next summer are more than 4,000 down on the equivalent figure for last year. Figures show there have been 140,890 applications - compared to 144, 980 this time last year.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "It is simply wrong to suggest that disadvantaged pupils cannot cope with academic rigour.

"The success of the English Baccalaureate proves that children from all backgrounds can achieve success in academic subjects.

"It does children no favour at all to dumb down exams while their peers in other countries are meeting ever higher expectations."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Assessor / Trainer

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas