Does Bristol pick the best?

Bristol University has been taking more students from state schools to escape its green-welly image. But is the policy right? And is it using the best methods to find the students with the most potential? Lucy Hodges examines the arguments
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The Independent Online

Britain's top private schools are engaged in a dogfight with the nation's top universities over university admissions. For the past fortnight the story has been told via screaming newspaper headlines. "Rejected", shrieked one above a story of how students were being "turned down by universities just for being middle class and doing too well in exams". Another told how a brainy student had been rejected by Bristol University despite gaining 11 grade As at GCSE and dropping only 15 marks out of a maximum of 1,200 in his AS-levels.

Britain's top private schools are engaged in a dogfight with the nation's top universities over university admissions. For the past fortnight the story has been told via screaming newspaper headlines. "Rejected", shrieked one above a story of how students were being "turned down by universities just for being middle class and doing too well in exams". Another told how a brainy student had been rejected by Bristol University despite gaining 11 grade As at GCSE and dropping only 15 marks out of a maximum of 1,200 in his AS-levels.

Has Bristol become the most politically correct university in the country? Or are the independent schools simply protecting their unique selling proposition – which is stellar A-levels and a place at the university of your dreams? The issue is complicated and there are legitimate – and possibly irreconcilable – arguments on both sides. Universities such as Bristol and Edinburgh have traditionally been seen as bastions of privilege, "green welly" institutions that attract large numbers of bright, independent school students and are highly sought after by the nation's upper middle classes. Until recently they have done little to look for bright children from comprehensives with a poor track record in A-levels and in getting their pupils into university. Edinburgh is now planning to change that.

Bristol began to introduce reform in 1998, after the Dearing report on higher education and before pressure began to be applied by Labour ministers. Its argument was a mixture of pragmatism and principle. It felt it was right to try to find those who would not necessarily think to apply to a top university. It was sensible too because that way it would be trawling a bigger pool to find the best brains in the country. "The vast majority of people – around 85 per cent – are educated in state schools," says the vice-chancellor Professor Eric Thomas. "We have a duty to them as well as to those who can afford to pay school fees." At present Bristol's intake of state school pupils stands at 61 per cent, up from 55 per cent in 1999. So, it is making headway, but it still has more independent school students than any of the other universities except for Oxford and Cambridge. The evidence is that, far from dumbing down standards, its policy is working. The A-level entry points score of first year students has improved from 27.1 in 2000 to 27.6 in 2002.

Bristol has done this by having every application examined centrally before it is sent out to admissions tutors in the departments. Applications from schools with average A-level scores of below 18 points (three Cs) are flagged up, so that tutors know they are dealing with someone who is at a disadvantage. As a result they take special care with those applications, making offers that are slightly below those given to applicants from high-achieving schools – an offer of ABB, say, rather than AAB.

But Professor Thomas is adamant that the university doesn't take state school pupils on lower entry grades. The lower offer is simply to encourage them, and others like them, not to be put off a university such as Bristol. "The quality of our students is going up all the time," he says. "The percentage of those with first-class degrees and 2:1s has been increasing year on year in spite of us having a widening participation strategy."

Bristol did some research into how different groups of students performed in their degrees. They discovered that those from state schools gained a higher class of degree than those from independent schools, even though both groups entered with the same A-level grades. The more disadvantaged a school the students came from – in terms of average A-level points – the better those students did.

This study has been supported by more recent analysis from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which found that pupils from independent schools with a given score at A-level performed significantly less well at university than their state school peers. Such studies suggest that Bristol is right to be pursuing its energetic widening participation programme.

Its big problem is that it is fantastically popular, attracting 40,000 applications for 3,000 places. It is therefore much more popular than Oxbridge. And the demand is particularly high in a handful of subjects – history, English, law, modern foreign languages and economics. It is about these subjects that the independent schools are crying foul.

Rudi Singh, the brilliant boy from King Edward's School Birmingham rejected by Bristol, had applied to study economics. He went on to gain a place at Cambridge. Two boys from fee-paying Bedford School had applied to study history at Bristol. Both have now secured places at Oxbridge.

This year Bristol has only 24 places for single honours economics. "It's a real bottleneck," says Patricia Broadfoot, Bristol's pro-vice-chancellor in charge of widening participation. "Nearly all those applying to Oxford and Cambridge will also be applying to us. We simply can't take all the people with perfect scores." Bristol has calculated that 45 per cent of its intake in economics is from independent schools. All will have been predicted three As at A-level. How is a university supposed to choose from candidates who all do so well?

The answer, Tim Cole, admissions tutor in history, explains (see box, right), is to find those showing some sparkle on the UCAS application form. "We score both the personal statement and the headteacher's reference," says Professor Thomas. "We are looking for evidence of originality and potential." This is where the independent schools see red. It is impossible to use the UCAS form to discover whether a student is highly motivated, has an intellectual bent, reads around their subject and is capable of independent thought, they say. The head's reference is – and should be – glowing. It is there to put the best gloss on an applicant, not to tell the unvarnished truth.

The personal statement is also a carefully constructed piece of writing that has often been laboured over by teachers and resourceful parents. "I can't believe that headteachers' references serve much purpose in differentiating between pupils," says Roger Dancey, the chief master of King Edward's in Birmingham. "And I'd like to see the sparkling statements of those that are accepted compared to those that aren't."

Independent school heads believe Bristol should follow the example of Oxford and Cambridge and interview applicants to find those with the most motivation and potential. Otherwise it lays itself open to allegations of discrimination, they believe. "There is clear evidence that certain departments at Bristol are discriminating," says Martin Stephen, high master of the fee-paying Manchester Grammar School. "It is grossly unfair to children who have worked their socks off to find themselves treated not on the basis of their grades but according to some simple social template."

Bristol, however, says that it simply does not have the resources to interview 40,000 applicants. "It's impossible," says Professor Thomas. Oxford and Cambridge universities are funded at a different level and are therefore able to do so. Moreover, interviewing throws up its own biases, according to Professor Broadfoot. People who attend independent schools may be more poised and self-confident than those from state schools. They may also have been coached in interview techniques.

Edinburgh's proposed changes to score items other than exam grades – such as whether students come from a family with a history of higher education or from a disadvantaged school – is also causing disquiet. But the independent heads are pleased that Edinburgh is being open about it. One of their complaints is that Bristol's system is not transparent. "We want a system that is fair and that will withstand external audit," says Edinburgh's vice principal Gordon Kirk.

But the question remains: how should the best and brightest be chosen for university? Exams such as A-levels were designed to get away from a system that admitted people on the basis of social class. They were seen as an objective measure. If these exams are considered inadequate, should something else replace them?

'We have people here from eton who have earned their places'

Bristol's history department has 2,000 applicants for 100 places. It is more popular than Oxford or Cambridge, says Tim Cole, the admissions tutor, and the vast majority of applicants have a string of As at GCSE and at AS-level and are predicted to get As at A-level. So choosing between them is a difficult business.

Each application is read by two history academics and critiqued separately. "We really do take each applicant seriously," Cole says. "I have a stash of Ucas forms in front of me and I am going to be rejecting some who are predicted to get four As. They come from state and private schools.

"We don't just look at the exam results. We look at what students write about themselves to try to find evidence of originality, independence of thought, enthusiasm and commitment to the subject. We also look at what their teachers are saying about them. Is there a sense that they are on an upward trajectory?"

The personal statement is revealing, he says. It can show whether applicants are reading around their A-level course or whether they are more interested in cricket than study. The head's reference can also be telling. If it says that this student was "lucky to get three As," or that one "is a bit reticent in class," then tutors draw their own conclusions.

But Cole is adamant that his department does not discriminate against applicants from independent schools although it does have its own target of the number it wants to recruit from the state sector. "We have people here from Eton who have earned their places because they were original and independent-minded," he says. "We don't operate any kind of blanket policy."

Like other departments, history does not interview. If it did, it would do nothing else, Cole says.