Private schools attack universities' state bias

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The Independent Online

Britain will lose talented students to America if the Government and universities continue to impose "social engineering" in state school pupils' favour, an independent schools leader warned yesterday.

Britain will lose talented students to America if the Government and universities continue to impose "social engineering" in state school pupils' favour, an independent schools leader warned yesterday.

Vivian Anthony, retiring secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of leading public schools, attacked schemes introduced by some universities that give advantages in the race for university places to pupils from poor backgrounds or poorly performing schools.

Ministers are offering financial rewards to universities that succeed in attracting more working-class students, but Mr Anthony told the Conference's annual meeting in Harrogate that growing numbers of private school pupils were considering scholarships in American universities after the controversy over Laura Spence, the state school pupil who went to Harvard after being denied a place at Oxford.

"To select on the basis of postcode or the poor overall performance of candidates' schools seems fraught with dangers," he said. "Government attempts to impose social engineering may explain attempts by some Oxford and Cambridge colleges to move to informal quotas for independent sector candidates, but this will divert outstanding candidates to other universities, and not only in this country. The prominent position of Oxford and Cambridge will be further challenged."

He added: "Universities' selection procedures must be seen to be fair and candidates with the highest attainment should be chosen. Selection criteria should be open and known to all applicants."

Mr Anthony, a former headteacher at a school in London until he took his present job 10 years ago, said: "How long will it be before parents pursue university selectors in the courts for discrimination and abuse of human rights? There will be no real fairness in the system until applications contain no mention of candidates' background."

Independent schools take account of pupils' backgrounds in their own selection procedure, he said, but added that they did so only after interviewing and intelligence testing.

A former chief examiner at A-level, Mr Anthony said that in some important respects A-level standards had fallen. The needs of the brightest pupils were not being met, while Government's new world-class tests for 18-year-olds were unlikely to fill the gap. The way forward, he suggested, was for clever sixth formers to work at the level of undergraduates.

Mr Anthony criticised exam boards in England for errors in setting and marking exams and said they were in no position to point the finger over the recent Scottish exams fiasco.

"[Errors cause] great worry and unhappiness to the pupils and teachers involved and too often the boards have treated complaints and enquiries in a cavalier fashion," he said.

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