Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," and I’ve always agreed with him.
But I was disappointed to learn that, last year, Ucas found hundreds of university applicants glibly using this quote to open their personal statements. I guess you can take one of two views on that. Either it’s so powerful and famous that applicants naturally adopt it: or they’re cheating and copying.
According to last week’s Sunday Times, the thinktank Policy Exchange reckons the latter. Joanna Williams (its head of education) questions “the time and effort spent on personal statements in the last year of sixth form and how they are being used by universities.”
It’s been a few weeks since the media last indulged its penchant for claiming that someone’s gaming the university admission system. Universities are lambasted for skewing the playing field by making unconditional offers, and schools are accused of cheating by inflating predicted grades, writing hyperbolic references or being too cosy with Oxbridge admissions tutors. This latest suggestion (part of Policy Exchange’s forthcoming report on university admissions) blames students – or their parents – for plagiarising, exaggerating or buying in their personal statements.
That’s the full set, then. Everyone – schools, students, parents and universities – is at fault for, in the immortal words of Oliver Hardy, the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. It seems everyone’s playing games with the process.
Applicants from low-performing state schools are urged to stress that fact in their personal statements, in the hope of receiving preferential offers. In the same vein, The Times’ Andrew Billen, writing on Tuesday about poet and English teacher Kate Clanchy, slipped in a snide jibe at the “famously good” comprehensive in Oxford to which youngsters switch from their independent schools after GCSEs: another slick bit of gaming, perhaps.
University admissions: a level playing field?
My experience in independent schools suggests Billen’s accusation is grossly exaggerated. Nonetheless, universities are increasingly making lower A-level entry offers to applicants from ethnic minorities and poorer households or postcodes. This may appear fair practice, but it worries independent schools whose bursary students from low-income homes benefit from full-fee remission: universities’ filter systems seem unlikely to pick up such subtleties.
But how do we build a fair system? Given that Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent of 18-year-olds proceeding to university has resulted in a mass market for HE, any wish to hark back to those less inclusive days where applicants could expect a face-to-face interview at the university of their choice is a hopeless pipe-dream.
Schools knew years ago that some university admissions tutors were ignoring their references, barely glancing even at the grades they predicted. Now we’re told that pupils’ own personal statements are being plagiarised, distorted and exaggerated, so should be ignored.
And that leaves what, precisely, for universities to base their judgements on? Only candidates’ GCSE results provide evidence of prior attainment, and maybe a hint of potential – though potential is largely a matter of guesswork. Universities really want to gauge how applicants will perform at degree level: at the time of application, GCSE results are already two years old.
I know what I’d do.
I wrote about university admissions some months ago; the last time they were under fire. I’ll repeat my recommendation from then. The only fair and sensible time for universities to select candidates is when they have their A-levels already under their belt. Yes, folks: we’re back to post-qualification application (PQA). It will be tricky, requiring a lot of work, including aligning the timing of academic years between schools and universities.
Still, if we’ve ruled out all the other elements as being vulnerable to cheating, what other approach remains?
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford