Monday, 30 June 2014

Context is everything

In an interesting debate on the Today programme this morning David Lammy argued strongly that contextual admissions, particularly by Russell Group universities, would be essential in helping to overcome structural inequalities in society. I thought some background might help to understand the argument.

Contextual admissions means the practice of taking into account, in deciding whether to offer a place at university to an applicant, factors other than the raw facts of a candidate’s exam performance. The logic being that an applicant who is getting ABB in A levels at a school with a very poor success record in exams has arguably demonstrated at least as much ability, studiousness and potential as a student who has got AAA at a school where 90% of students get AAA.

This is one of those arguments which appears differently depending on how close you are. If no-one in your school has done well at A levels previously, then you don’t have teachers who are practiced at coaching for A levels; you don’t have examples in the years above you of the habits of studying hard; and you don’t have peers within your class with whom you can study. I’d gladly subscribe to the abstract notion that if a student from this background has done really well, they’d have done even better had their background and school been different.

And now play the argument from the perspective of the AAA student who doesn’t get a place if the ABB student is admitted. The only direct comparison – the exam results – shows that one did better than the other. And the one who got ABB might well find it patronising to be treated on different grounds. Close up and personal, the issues can seem less clear cut: what is fair in the abstract has a whiff of rough justice when it’s two specific people.

That’s one reason why it’s been a controversial topic in education. Another is that entry grades are used by newspaper league tables as an indicator of quality. So the higher the average entry score, the better a university’s league table position.

I haven’t yet met an admissions tutor – in any kind of university – who doesn't want to take into account a student’s personal statement, or who doesn't want to recognise potential. A motivated student with slightly worse A levels is normally a much more interesting proposition than a high-achieving student who doesn't show any spark. The problem isn't that the staff in the ‘elite’ don’t recognise the issues.

So, if you accept that something should be done, what should that be?

Firstly, I think, take entry grades out of league tables. This would remove the perverse incentive to take ‘safe-but-potentially-uninteresting’ students. If you must have something there instead, calculate a value added score. Then you’re really measuring that universities do, rather than measuring, by proxy, the socio-economic characteristics of a university’s student population.

Secondly, get serious with improving all schools. There is a frightening disparity in achievement between state school pupils and those from private schools. Unless you believe that parental wealth correlates with the intelligence and ability of their offspring, this must relate in part to the quality and capacity of private schools. During the introduction of top-up fees in 2004, Charles Clarke, when accused of not being a socialist, retorted that if he was a real socialist he’d put all the money into pre-school education. And he has a point – if you’re going to solve social inequality by education, the earlier in someone’s life you start, the better. Affirmative action at age 16 plus is sticking plaster; a genuine cure should start years before.

Well, that's my two-penn'orth. I'll stand back now and watch the fireworks ...


  1. Hi Hugh very interesting posting. This assumes that all students are "traditional" age, which indeed most are. But what about the minority of mature students. Is there perhaps a case for looking at how these students are assessed? Especially as you when recruiting one looks for a mixture of aptituted and potential. Life experience (tricky with younger candidates), access courses - can elements from these be used as some form of assessment?

  2. Hi Annette - thanks for reading.

    You make a good point, and of course its very important not to exclude older applicants. What's interesting is that universities can and do take all of these 'life' factors into account for older students, but the same latitude is not always given for younger students. That's what makes me think that its a system issue rather than an attitudinal problem.