Margot Lawrence: My bright daughter can't get into university. Why?

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:53

In 2003, my 11-year old-daughter found herself rejected by five secondary schools, despite being a bright and well-liked pupil. She was not alone – there were several children in her position. Our only option was to have a home tutor and wait for a place to become available. Instead, we remortgaged our house and sent her to a small private school until Year 11.

She did very well, achieving 10 As and A*s at GCSE, and is now completing her second year of A-Levels (ironically the very schools that rejected her at Year 7 fell over themselves to offer her a place in their sixth form once they saw her GCSE results). With 4 As at AS-Level and 95 per cent for the first module of her A2 English literature exam, she seemed set on the road for a fine academic career. But history repeats itself and, once again, we find ourselves let down by the education system.

My now 18-year-old daughter applied to four top universities to study English Literature, and been rejected from all her choices. We talked to one university but all they really told us was that there were too many students for too few places: "Almost every applicant has already three As at A-level or is predicted three As, and over 50 per cent of applicants have more than 6 A*s at GCSE. Because of the overwhelming number of outstanding applications, we are obliged to disappoint many applicants each year. Nor do we have the resources to interview what would be, to be fair to all candidates, at least 1,000 applicants."

So now what do we tell her? I feel like an idiot, that I haven't played the game properly. When I, surprisingly, produced a diligent and self-motivated child, I naturally assumed that hard work would pay off and the world would be her oyster. In some ways, it stands against her. Friends of hers who are predicted Bs and Cs in their final A2 exams have had no problem getting places at universities with lower entry requirements.

As one of her teachers said: "It stinks". What kind of education system are we offering that penalises children who work hard and achieve high grades? Recent evidence suggests that at least 50,000 sixth-formers with good grades will not get to university next year.

The new head of UCAS Mary Curnock Cook has suggested school-leavers go to university later in life. Her advice is for them to "reappraise their aspirations". Why should they? Why should my daughter who achieved 100 per cent in English literature at GCSE and 95 per cent at A2 Level feel she cannot study English literature. Maybe she should "reappraise" her ambitions and study something else... or not study at all? Is it temerity on her part to think she would be good enough to study English literature in the country of her birth? If so, why didn't someone tell her when she was 11 that she could work hard if she wanted, but it wouldn't necessarily guarantee any great opportunities. It's true that she works hard because she enjoys the process of studying and learning for its own sake – it's not all about the next step. But if you enjoy something and you're talented, you should be able to continue doing it.

If an 18-year-old does defer university entry, what are they going to do in the meantime? Without experience or a higher education qualification, they will only be able to get menial jobs or end up on unemployment benefit, straining the social welfare system. There's also the matter of their parents supporting them. My husband is coming up to retirement but he won't be able to consider it if he has to wait several years for my daughter to go to university. So it's putting a noose around our necks as well. We'll be so old and doddery by the time she finishes, she'll have to support us, as well as attempt to pay back her student loan.

These bright, hard-working A-grade pupils who feel as though they are on the scrapheap at 18 (because logically or not, when you are 18 that is how it makes you feel), have been let down by this country. If there are not enough university places for them to study the subject of their choice, the Government needs to question what is going wrong with its higher education policies.

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