Leading article: What does fair really mean?

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The Independent Online

This week's discussion document from Professor Steven Schwartz on making university admissions fairer suggests a whole raft of ways in which universities can overcome the advantages conferred by class and money and find bright children from poor performing comprehensive schools. One way is to take disadvantaged children from poor schools on lower grades than those from Eton or Winchester on the grounds that they will be just as clever as, though less well prepared than, the public school boys. A small piece of research hidden away in an appendix shows that a number of universities are doing this already. One in seven are offering places to students conditional on an A and two Bs if they come from a bog-standard comp but on higher grades if they have been attending an independent school. Is this fair?

The answer is that it may be fair. But it also may not. It depends on the individual case. Independent schools contain all kinds of people, the very well-heeled, the medium-heeled and, occasionally, people with very little money indeed. Independent schools in the big cities have scholarships for bright children from humble backgrounds. So, take, for example, a cleaner, a single mum earning a pittance, with two children both on full scholarships at private schools in London. How will her offspring be treated when they come to apply to university? Will they be offered places conditional on three As because they are being privately educated or will they be treated as though they need a leg up? These are important questions, which the discussion document does not address. The British class system may appear monolithic and impenetrable but it is not. There is a good deal of social mobility in this country. People move their children in and out of the independent and state sectors, picking and mixing their education to suit their needs.

The other question Professor Schwartz does not address is whether or not such positive discrimination is lawful. At least one lawyer consulted by The Independent has suggested that it is not. That is because the Human Rights Act provides for equal treatment in goods and services. It is hardly equal for one candidate to be required to have better exam results than another. The big question is how the judges would rule in a case brought by an independent school pupil who failed to get into Oxford, say, and decided to bring a test case. Would they go along with the US Supreme Court and agree that the country needed skills that can only be developed through exposure to diverse people?