Fury at 'social engineering' by universities

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The Independent Online

Universities were warned yesterday they could face litigation from disappointed students if they offer places to pupils with lower A-level grades because they attend poorly performing schools.

The proposal is one of a number put out for consultation by a government taskforce set up to devise a fairer admissions system.

The taskforce, headed by Professor Steven Schwartz of Brunel University, is urging schools and universities to consider whether they should consider the background of a candidate's school and enable youngsters from the poorest performers to leapfrog candidates with higher A-level grades.

However, the move led to an angry clash last night with the head of one of the country's top-performing grammar schools, claiming it would lead to litigation by students and their parents.

Elspeth Insch, headteacher of King Edward Handsworth Grammar School for Girls and a member of the executive of the National Grammar Schools Association, said: "It smacks of being 'Big Brotherish' and social engineering.

"Some of my children come from leafy Sutton Coldfield but others come from poorer backgrounds. It would be quite wrong to penalise kids who have struggled simply because they have attended a school with good exam results."

She added that it would be "a minefield" to start making lower offers to pupils from poorly performing schools.

The proposal is one of a series of measures put out for consultation by the taskforce.

Other measures include wholesale changes to the exam and university timetable so that candidates can apply after they have received their A-level results - or universities setting aptitude tests, as in the US.

Professor Schwartz, who is vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said yesterday: "Because of the advantages of attending university, it is vital all members of the public have a fair chance of reaping these benefits.

"Unfortunately, well-meaning people differ about what they consider fair.

"What we have to consider is whether university admission is a kind of prize for working very hard at school. For people who hold that point of view it is not fair to choose a person with a lower exam mark above a higher mark. Some people would consider that immoral."

The alternative view, he added, was that students who had struggled against the odds should be helped to achieve a university place. "We have to decide what we mean by fairness," he added.

His report, sent out for consultation to universities and schools yesterday, says the gap in participation is still wide - 50 per cent of youngsters from non-manual backgrounds go to university, compared with 18 per cent from skilled or unskilled working-class backgrounds.

In some cases, argues the report, admissions tutors already make "slightly lower offers" to pupils as a result of the performance of the school they come from.

It adds that there is "widespread acceptance of the use of school performance data" within universities - citing a report from the National Audit Office.

Others use American-style aptitude tests or psychometric tests to single out the brightest candidates now that so many youngsters are predicted to obtain three A-grade passes at A-level.

The document goes on to say that research findings "suggest that some people are disadvantaged in the admissions process in that they apply with lower grades than they might have achieved, had they attended a different school or had their families been wealthier".

The research also shows that some students from state schools and colleges perform better at undergraduate level that students from independent schools with exactly the same entry qualifications.

It makes a strong case for allowing students to apply after students receive their A-level results, saying: "There is anecdotal evidence that applicants without a family or school/college history of further education are less confident of their ability and less likely to apply to a course with more demanding entry qualifications."

It adds that Post-Qualifications Admissions - as the change is called - would also be more efficient by removing the need for conditional offers.

THE PROPOSALS

¿ Universities are asked whether it is fair to consider any obstacles a student might have had to overcome - such as attending a low- achieving school - when looking at an applicant's examination grades. The document says students from working-class backgrounds apply with lower grades than they might have achieved at other schools.

¿ Universities are then asked whether it is fair to offer an applicant a place on lower examination results if they have faced such obstacles. However, 42 per cent of academics said in a survey they had done this.

¿ A third key question is whether additional measures of assessment alongside A-levels - such as interviews and aptitude tests like the US Scholastic Aptitude Tests - are necessary. Professor Schwartz acknowledged yesterday the tests could unearth bright youngsters who failed to shine in A-levels. Opponents claim it would be easy to coach for them for this.

¿ Schools, universities, exam boards and local education authorities are lastly asked if the system should allow students to apply to university after receiving their A-level results. Everyone agrees this would be a better system. The Government is likely to formally consult over it.

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