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Admissions bias alarms heads

Hackles have been raised over a scheme to help comprehensive pupils into university, reports Adi Bloom

Middle-class children at struggling comprehensives may benefit unfairly from a plan to reform university admissions, heads warn.

This week, a government taskforce published proposals designed to create a fairer university entrance system. These include the suggestion that universities should set lower entrance requirements for candidates from poorly-performing schools than for those who attended schools with consistently good records.

The taskforce, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, in west London, also asked whether universities should consider alternative measures of assessment, such as interviews or aptitude tests, or whether it would be fairer to accept applications from candidates only after they had received their A-level results.

Half of all university students come from professional and non-manual backgrounds. In contrast, only 18 per cent are from manual, partly-skilled or unskilled backgrounds.

Professor Geoff Whitty, director of the Institute of Education in London, has backed the proposals. His research has found that, although private school pupils achieve higher A-level results than their comprehensive counterparts, the difference is just over half a grade, despite smaller class sizes and better facilities.

And a recent study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that former state pupils do better at university than independent-school pupils admitted with the same qualifications.

But heads are less enthusiastic about the taskforce's proposals. Trevor Averre-Beeson, head of Islington Green comprehensive, questioned whether lowering admission criteria will benefit the pupils from the deprived area of north London served by his school.

He said: "There is evidence to show that children get to university more easily from wealthier backgrounds. Anything which broadens the social base of university is a good thing.

"But this kind of reverse discrimination makes me uneasy. This could be regarded as unfair by others not faced with challenges. And it could privilege people it isn't supposed to."

He cites a former pupil who was given a low offer for a place at Cambridge because of the school she attended. But there were few challenges in her home life - both her parents had also studied at Cambridge.

Peter Holding, head of Sir William Borlase's grammar, in Buckinghamshire, where more than 60 per cent of A-level entries scored A or B grades last year, said: "There are children in every school whose backgrounds aren't good. But if a child from a difficult background attends a high-achieving school, they are doubly disadvantaged."

For pupils from genuinely deprived backgrounds, there are also other obstacles to university entrance.

Chris Conway, head of sixth form at Archbishop Grimshaw comprehensive in Solihull, said: "We serve a very deprived community. A lot of our pupils have to look after younger brothers and sisters at home, and have a part-time job to bring the money in. They have to work harder than other pupils to get high grades.

"But tuition fees are a much more important issue for our pupils than admissions grades. That financial hurdle needs to be tackled first if we want to encourage more young people to go to university."

Mr Conway would like to see the introduction of widespread interviewing, so that pupils could be judged as individuals.

Dr Holding has called for the introduction of aptitude tests to identify promising pupils. And the Independent Schools Council has advocated a transparent admissions policy applied after pupils receive their A-level results.

The consultation document will be circulated until November. Final recommendations will be made to the Government in May next year.

Professor Schwartz said: "I'm getting lots of feedback, and I hope to reflect what people think. I don't think the proposed changes will be radical, but I hope they will be fair."

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