It’s not ‘social engineering’ to consider context in uni admissions, it’s a question of fairness

Janet Downs's picture

‘Parents fear social engineering, says leading head,’ writes today’s Times (£) under an eye-catching front page headline: Private woe over rise of state pupils at Oxbridge.

Anthony Wallersteiner, head of Stowe School, told The Times that Oxbridge policies to attract state-educated students had ‘driven down the number of Oxbridge places awarded to privately educated pupils’ by taking factors such as context into account.

It’s still the case, however, that privately-educated pupils are disproportionately represented at Oxbridge.  36% of those offered places at Cambridge in 2017 were from independent schools.  At Oxford, 42% of 2017 offers were to privately-educated pupils.  Nevertheless, the rise in the proportion of state pupils attending Oxbridge was leading fee-paying parents to complain their children were being elbowed out by ‘social engineering’, The Times said.

Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, told The Times the OfS wanted university recruitment ‘to be more reflective of broader society’.  This is not ‘social engineering’.  It’s a question of fairness.

The Times wrote that heads of other ‘leading independent schools’ admitted their ‘marginal candidates’ were less likely to be offered a place at Oxbridge than in previous years.  That’s as it should be if privately-educated marginal candidates were being offered places which could have been taken by better-qualified state-educated pupils.

The Independent School Council (ISC) said it was in favour of ‘contextual admissions’ but it should be used ‘intelligently’.   This, it said, meant not linking ‘private school’ with ‘wealth’.

Wealthy or less wealthy (unlikely to be eligible for free school meals), parents who pay for children to be privately-educated must think their investment confers some kind of advantage – that the ‘context’ in which the children are schooled will make it more likely they enter Oxbridge (even if the candidate is ‘marginal’), for example.  

The ISC is right – contextual admissions must be used with intelligence.  That surely means not being overly influenced by a candidate having attended a ‘leading independent school’.


This is the second post about recent front page articles in The Times.  Readers might be forgiven for thinking there’s some kind of campaigning going on – a broadside from private schools worried about losing pupils to the state sector.  The first article describing how a Times claim  about how much fee-paying schools save the taxpayer was found to be false is here.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 11/05/2019 - 19:55

Despite being the head of a northern inner-urban comprehensive where the average intake CATs score was 85 (-1SD) we never needed to support the idea that our students should be able to get into top universities with lower grades than students attending schools in posher areas or from independent schools. This is because attending our school was no disadvantage. It's cognitive ability that counts and we believed in 'plastic intelligence' which focused on making our students cleverer rather than 'gaming the system' to boost GCSE results.

This policy applied equally across our intake ability range. In a typical intake year group of 100, we would be lucky to get more than a dozen pupils with an 'above average' (>100) CATs score, but occasionally we got pupils with scores above 130. We ran a broad and balanced academic curriculum for all students, who could take German as well as French, History and Geography as well as Integrated Humanities, English literature as well as English language and single sciences as well as double award science.

This is not the place to explain the technicalities of how this was done, but a school council that promoted 'agency' and argument over compliance and passivity was a major factor

as was our 'Study Club' extended curriculum in which students attended activities and took extra subjects on a voluntary basis. Every year our students left the Sixth Form College to take degrees at top academic universities. At GCSE we regarded gaining an E rather than an F, an A* rather than an A, an A rather than a B, a B rather than a C, all just as important and worthwhile than a C rather a D.

Inspiration, wisdom and deep understanding is more important than 'empty qualifications' that mean little at the time and even less a few months later. Thus were all our students given sound platforms from which to progress to adult life.

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