Editorial - Social engineering - no need for smelling salts

As the press revs up for A-level outrage, is a whiff of positive discrimination so very awful?

Life can be very predictable. Although schools will have to wait until next week to see how their pupils have performed at A-level, the headlines, rest assured, have already been written. If overall scores decline marginally they will read "Schools in crisis as grades plummet"; if they rise slightly it will be "Future of dumbed-down exams in doubt as grade inflation soars". It is also a safe bet that there will be much gnashing of teeth over the problems universities face distinguishing among hordes of students waving their freshly minted grade As.

Nothing, however, is as inevitable as the blind fury that always greets the seasonal appearance of that most un-British phenomenon - social engineering. This is the label, with its faint whiff of Soviet coercion, given to the suggestion that universities should lower their entry grades for disadvantaged pupils. This week, Lord Mandelson was fingered as the prime suspect in a government plot to crowbar a few more of the deserving poor into universities. In past years, the villains of the piece have been vice-chancellors themselves. When the heads of formerly reliable green-welly institutions such as Bristol, Exeter and Durham start mulling over the desirability of positive discrimination, it is not hard to imagine the howls of indignation in middle England.

On the face of it, that anger is understandable. Parents of public school pupils have spent thousands of pounds in the expectation that junior will make it into a good university. To make it harder for them to get in at the final hurdle seems unfair. To make their A-levels count for less than those of a poor pupil from a state school appears particularly unjust. Is a pupil's achievement diminished because they attended a private school? And how can universities claim to be intellectually rigorous if they favour the next best over the best?

Universities are in the business of spotting and developing intellectual potential. Despite the impressive performance of independent schools at A-level, state pupils maintain a slight edge when it comes to the quality of final degrees. When King's College London decided to give inner-city state school pupils with Bs and Cs rather than As entry to its medical school and an extra year's tuition, 88 per cent of them ultimately achieved a first or upper second. Universities are not being politically correct when they take social background into account; they are being canny.

The outrage, as always, is overdone. To claim the Government or universities are socially engineering the next generation is a tad rich when the likes of Eton et al have been doing exactly that for decades. Let's be honest - parents pay large amounts of money to independent schools to give their kids a social and intellectual advantage. It is an understandable desire but hardly an equitable one. To scream blue murder when universities dare to redress the balance for perfectly logical reasons is melodramatic at best and hypocritical at worst.

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