No one should have been surprised at the heat (if not light) generated last month when Bristol University's admissions policies came under the media spotlight. Nor should anyone have been perplexed at the reaction of the independent sector. Some 20 per cent of all school sixth formers, 15 per cent of all A-level candidates and 36 per cent of those achieving the equivalent of three A grades come from independent schools. In "difficult" A-level subjects (such as maths, the sciences, languages and history), the sector accounts for between 40 and 50 per cent of candidates gaining A grades.
But the independent sector's interest in university entry goes beyond its numerical base or simple self-interest. Consistently, over the past 150 years, independent schools have sought to expand their educational provision for all social classes.
This was the main thrust of the creation of "public schools" in the 1830s, of the direct grant scheme, of the assisted places scheme and of wider access initiatives now being undertaken with the support of the Sutton and Ogden trusts. It is also the motivation behind proposals to increase the funds allocated by schools themselves to means-tested bursaries. Already, about 20 per cent of university candidates from independent schools are the children of non-graduate parents who were not educated in independent schools.
Such concerns lay behind joint proposals by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) to "open up" higher education. Recent indications that ministers will modify plans for a new "access regulator" (as set out in the HE White Paper in January) are to be welcomed. But the need for more open, transparent and explicit admissions criteria remains.
The HMCGSA discussion document identifies six objectives relating to the roles and responsibility of key agencies, transparency and fairness, widening access, selection, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and research. There are 23 specific proposals, including the following:
* The primary role of the Office for Fair Access, announced by Education Secretary Charles Clarke this week, should be to ensure that universities have fair and transparent procedures which are applied consistently; its other main role should as an ombudsman on admissions appeals.
* Universities should be encouraged to establish a procedure whereby a clear "audit trail" of an individual's application can be verified.
* There should be a national system for independent observers from schools and colleges to monitor admissions procedures, reporting to the "access ombudsman" if they have concerns.
* Universities should consider moving to a fully professionalised admissions service to reduce concerns over departmental inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.
* Serious consideration should be given to developing simple and objective means for universities to assess students' attitude, application and wider key skills as an important complement in the selection process to national qualifications, the personal statement and references. Wherever possible, students should be interviewed.
* Information about a student's background (social class, schooling, parental education and income) should not be available to selectors but should be recorded separately for national monitoring.
* More use should be made of evidence from a school's own assessments to identify a student's potential to benefit from HE.
* Universities should be free to expand popular and successful courses to meet demand.
* Outreach work and pastoral support to prevent dropping out should be priorities for additional funding. It is essential that any central government funding to support retention and combat drop-out should be additional, ring-fenced funding. It should not be diverted from core cash needed for teaching and learning.
* With the introduction of Curriculum 2000, it is essential that new research is carried out to assess the predictive validity of national qualifications as indicators of degree outcomes.
The main proposal, however, is for the earliest possible introduction of a system of post-qualifications application and admission, with entry to university for first-year undergraduates being moved to January. This would require a realignment of the university year but could be achieved by the introduction of a two-semester year (for example, February to May and September to December).
Under this system, A-level examinations could start at least a week later, which would enable busy teachers to mark during the first weeks of the summer break. There would be more time for teaching and learning in Year 13. Applications to university would be made during September and October once exam results and appeal outcomes were known.
Following the Tomlinson inquiry into A-levels and the recent controversy over Bristol University's admissions procedures, the introduction of this system now looks like a serious possibility. It is long overdue.
Geoff Lucas is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference Ted Wragg, 72