When three As aren't enough

A survey of independent schools shows many excellent pupils unable to get a place at university. Why should this be so? asks Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
Do universities discriminate against pupils from independent schools? Are they rejecting applicants who they think may have bought their A-level results? Those were the questions raised last week by a survey showing outstanding A-level students failing to get offers from admissions tutors.

The study of 15,000 candidates in independent schools found almost 500 candidates - many with predicted grades of three As - who were rejected without interview. That figure was 20 per cent up on the previous year. Most were applying for the most popular subjects - English, medicine, law, physiotherapy and history where pressure on places is most intense.

Such is the pressure that one university had 4,000 applications for 96 places in history and another had 384 for five places in English, according to the survey by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' Schools Association.

"Funny things have been happening," explains Francis Moran, head of King Alfred's, a private school in north-west London. "We had two girls last year applying for English, both very strong candidates, one with predicted grades of three As, the other with predicted grades of four As, who had a terrible time getting a university place.

"One had applied to Clare College, Cambridge, as well as to five provincial universities but didn't get one offer. The other applied to six provincial universities and received only one offer. It was crazy."

In the end both girls got places. The one rejected by Clare College got into Selwyn College, Cambridge, on the basis of outstanding A-level results. But the experience has left the school mystified. It wonders whether universities are perhaps operating a positive discrimination policy against girls for English because of the overwhelming number of female applicants for that subject.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, doubts that universities are prejudiced. "Admissions tutors will have their personal preference like everyone else," he says. "But in the end they're trying to fill their places and to get the best students, so it doesn't make sense for them to discriminate against a group."

Admissions officers contacted by The Independent deny charges of bias. "We have grammar schools, independent schools, very good comprehensives and sixth-form colleges competing together," says Dr John Ash, who is in charge of admissions at Birmingham University. "We have a policy of equal opportunities. It doesn't matter where students come from."

There is no question, however, that it is becoming harder to land a place at university, particularly in the popular subjects. And, when it is so tough, universities are going to have to select on criteria other than predicted A-level grades. This is not new. But it seems to have become much more important.

"There's more to getting a place at university than achieving good A- level scores," says Mr Higgins. "All the research tells us that performance at A-level is a poor predictor of performance at degree level."

Bearing that in mind, perhaps, admissions tutors look at things apart from predicted A-levels on the UCAS application form.

Dr Glenys Davies, associate dean of admissions in the arts faculty at Edinburgh University, has rejected some applicants this year who had three predicted A grades in the very sought-after subjects. At Edinburgh, history is almost as popular as English, and modern languages such as French are going the same way.

"I have seen people apply to six good universities to study English and be rejected by all six," she says. "My heart goes out to them."

After looking at predicted grades Dr Davies examines how applicants have done in their GCSEs. They need to have a fine string of A grades to get through her sifting mechanism to study one of the most popular subjects. She also examines the school's reference and the candidate's personal statement. Anything that looks unenthusiastic is noted.

"In the personal statement I want to see why someone is interested in the subject they have chosen," she explains. "What makes my heart sink is when a candidate has written `I want to do English because I like reading'. It may be true but it's not the best way of selling yourself."

Listing outside jobs and interests, work experience, Duke of Edinburgh award accomplishments and musical prowess counts more for some subjects than for others. An interest in drama might help with English, or skill in debating with law. In medicine it has become crucial for aspiring medical students to show they have worked in a hospital or doctor's surgery, and that they are rounded human beings with good communication skills. Gone are the days when introverted but scholarly nerds could breeze into medical school.

Birmingham University, one of the most rated outside Oxbridge and London, looks for a "crackingly" good personal statement, according to Dr Ash. "We have had statements from students predicted to get four A grades at A-level that were full of descriptions of their interest in sport," he says. Such candidates would clearly not pass muster.

In the school's reference, Birmingham is looking for indications that the candidate has strong academic skills, will score very high, and, in the case of aspiring medics, will make a good doctor. "What we're looking for with extra-curricular activities is what the students are gaining from them," he adds.

Many headteachers know all this - which is why pupils, certainly at independent schools, are required to write out their personal statement first in draft form so the school can check the words are sufficiently enthusiastic and well chosen. "The personal statement has assumed increasing importance in recent years," says Margaret Rudland, head of Godolphin and Latymer girls' school in west London. "It now fills almost one-quarter of the application form. We encourage our students to sell themselves as to why they want to study the subject."

There are admissions practices, however, which are less well-known to schools, that vary between universities or between departments. Such variations leave parents and schools with the feeling that getting into university is a game of roulette, the rules of which are unclear. Recently, King Alfred's discovered that many universities - including Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol - prefer to take candidates who have done linear, rather than modular, science A-levels on the grounds that they are more difficult.

"Schools were putting students through these modular courses and happily allowing them to do resits in the modules, not knowing that these courses were not rated by universities," Mr Moran says. "We need universities to be open about what they're doing so we can take proper decisions."

Some universities have strict policies that they won't look at people who have re-sat their A-levels. Birmingham, for example, won't except in special circumstances, nor will Edinburgh. Another issue that exercises schools is whether provincial universities reject candidates who have listed Oxford or Cambridge as one of their six choices. There are strong indications some do.

Others wait to see whether Oxbridge tutors make an offer to a particular high-flying candidate. That means excellent students hanging about for four or five months with no offers. "It's a long time for youngsters to wait," says Janet Lawley, head of Bury grammar school for girls, who has two good pupils this year, one applying for law and the other for physics, who have still not been made offers. "It can be very stressful for them."

Schools think some universities suspect them of inflating the grade predictions to their pupils. David Sheldon, who is in charge of law admissions at Edinburgh, says: "We tend to be a bit suspicious of predictions at times of high demand."

Edinburgh's law department is also wary of the school's reference. "That's because it's very unusual to see a negative reference. Most are glowing."

Do universities exercise positive discrimination in favour of students from comprehensive schools? The answer is that some probably do in some circumstances. "There is a sense in which there has to be compensation between different types of school," says Mr Sheldon. "If someone applies with three As and two Bs at highers from Westerhaile's education centre in Edinburgh (in an area of multiple deprivation), it may be more of an achievement than someone who has got five grade As from George Watson's, a private school in the city."

That notion is endorsed by Dr Nigel Stout, who runs the crammer Mander Portman Woodward in London. An Oxbridge college looking at applications from two marginal candidates, one from a state school, the other from a private school, might discriminate in favour of the state school pupil on the grounds that they have "more of a learning curve left in them" and might get a better degree, he says.

But most experts think both state and private school pupils who opt for the popular subjects must expect a lot of rejections. Universities don't want to waste offers. If they tap into the computer and see that one good provincial university has made an offer to a candidate for English, they often won't bother making an offer.

Admissions tutors say if candidates would only switch subjects, from, say, history to Scottish history at Edinburgh or from French to Scandinavian languages or Arabic, they wouldn't have the same trouble getting into university.


Acquire a string of brilliant GCSEs

Perform superbly in the sixth form

Choose a less popular subject

Write a beautiful personal statement

Explain why your chosen subject is so important to you

Explain what you get out of your part-time job

Write a personal letter to the university of your dreams telling them that they're your first choice

If at first you don't succeed - don't be put off by rejection

In her final year at Greycoats Hospital, a comprehensive in London, Ayo Kalejaiye applied to medical school. She had seven grade As and two grade Bs at GCSE, her teachers gave her a good reference and predicted three A-levels at grades A or B. She was given no interviews and received no offers.

Her A-level examinations did not go as well as she had hoped. She got two Bs and a C. But her teachers, convinced of her ability and realising her determination, contacted the private crammer Davies Laing and Dick, who gave her a scholarship to retake her A-levels in one term.

Ayo applied to medical school again. She braced up her personal statement and was offered a place at Liverpool, conditional on three grade As. She got two As and a B. Liverpool turned her down. But the Royal Free Hospital medical school in Hampstead made her an offer. At the age of 19 she had won a coveted place to study medicine.

She advises would-be medical students not to give up. "Your grades are the most important thing," she says. "But the personal statement is vital because if you don't come across the right way, you will be rejected."