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Equality before quotas

If poor children are to spread their wings, private schools should be open to all, regardless of family income, says philanthropist Peter Lampl

SO how should the Government level the playing field on university admissions? The Higher Education Funding Council recently published a consultation paper on how the Government's annual allocation of pound;160 million might be used to make the system fairer. For years, access has favoured students from well-heeled families who are at private and selective state schools.

The figures are stark and fairly simple. For the second year, the HEFC has published figures confirming what we already know. We know it so well we don't even bother to feel ashamed any more. Children from poor homes and underprivileged backgrounds get a raw deal when it comes to encouraging or determining access to higher education.

The HEFC figures broadly showed little change from the previous year when they sparked off the storm over Laura Spence, the bright comprehensive school student who was snapped up by Harvard after being turned down by Oxford. Little difference is to be expected because change will be a long process. But no change is rather dull in news terms. So journalists latched on to the fact that two former polytechnics, Oxford Brookes and West of England, were among those which had the worst records on admitting children from non-privileged homes.

The main problem, though, is with most of the universities in the top dozen of the league. In the three benchmark areas (the proportion of state students, the proportion of those from the bottom three social classes, and representation from the poorest neighbourhoods) there is a big gap between the actual figures and what they should be if the same degree of talent were to be identified and rewarded.

Remember we are talking about children from less-privileged homes who are academic superstars in their own right. Against the odds, they have achieved the same A-level grades as their counterparts from better-off homes. They come from schools where there are twice as many students per member of staff as at the independents, where half as much money is spent per pupil and where, in many cases, they come from less supportive home backgrounds. Yet these figures show that thousands of the country's brightest students from comprehensives do not get places at the top universities.

Some of our top independent schools worry that the furore which was provoked by the Chancellor last summer will lead to he imposition of quotas in favour of state-school students. This is not on the Government's agenda. Nor should it be.

At the Sutton Trust, which I set up four years ago to help bright non-privileged children, we want the admissions system reformed so that they get their just rewards. Nothing more. No quotas.

Out should go the archaic system of awarding university places on predicted rather than actual A-level results. Universities are more likely to take notice of the predictions of schools which have sent them pupils in the past. Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, testified at the Education Select Committee that predictions are wrong two times out of three.

Leading universities should have the proper resources and the will to reach out more to those parts of the educational system which they are hardly touching.

They should have teams of professional recruitment officers touring schools scouting for talent. They should run more summer schools, for students and teachers, to show them what life at their university is like. This is where the government funds now on the table should be allocated.

Our top academic independent day schools must be opened up to talent irrespective of ability to pay. These schools are very good at maximising the potential of their students in terms of exam results and then maximising the opportunity with those results. Most of them regret that they can longer admit children from any background.

Very few have significant endowments. They do spend money on scholarships but these are not means-tested, so they mainly go to brighter children from well-off homes.

We have, with the help of the Girls' Day School Trust, piloted an open access school in Liverpool. More than 70 per cent of the 11-year-old girls admitted to The Belvedere School in September had all or part of their fees paid for them. This is not crumbs from the high table, like the Assisted Places Scheme, but the opening up of an entire school to all talents. This is a pilot scheme which is working well and we hope others, including the government, will take it up elsewhere.

The recent consultation paper makes a start. If we delay another year in allocating funds, because we cannot get a consensus on how the money should be spent, another generation of some of our brightest youngsters will be betrayed.

Peter Lampl is an unpaid independent adviser to the Higher Education Funding Council reporting to

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary

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