The many and the few
Debra Liddicoat sounds proud of her school's record in sending its pupils to top universities.
"I don't know, really," the head of Clarendon House Grammar says when asked to explain it. "When they are in Year 10, we will take them off to Oxford and Cambridge. We will arrange mock interviews for those pupils for whom we think it is appropriate."
Ms Liddicoat wasn't aware of statistics published this summer showing the percentage of pupils at every school sixth-form in England who have progressed to the country's 30 most selective universities.
But when told the figure for her school in Ramsgate, Kent, she is "pleasantly surprised". Then, after a long pause, the head picks up on my hesitation.
"Why?" she asks. "Is that low?"
Actually, yes, on the face of it the 17 per cent of pupils that Clarendon House Grammar sent to those selective universities between 2007 and 2009 is quite low. Other grammar schools with worse A-level results have sent up to three times as many of their pupils to top universities.
Facts like that are about to become a very big deal for schools and teachers. The squeeze on university places and ever-improving A-level results are focusing attention on where pupils go after they leave school as never before. And increasingly it is teachers who are being blamed for selling their sixth-formers short.
This summer saw an avalanche of criticism. Universities minister David Willetts accused schools of playing a "cruel trick" on pupils by entering them for a "mish-mash of A-levels" that improved schools' league-table positions but did not maximise pupils' chances of "getting on to an academic course at a competitive university".
Wendy Piatt, director general of the elite Russell Group of universities, said too many pupils at some state schools were taking exams that restricted their options. And free-schools pioneer Toby Young accused comprehensive teachers of offering "poor advice".
Mary Curnock Cook, head of university admissions service Ucas, called on schools to tackle the "tragedy" of "wrong subjects" thwarting young people's ambitions, and Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss claimed that state schools had "mis-sold" pupils "low-quality subjects".
Subject choice at A-level is one thing. There is little doubt that some state schools do offer a different mix of subjects to the independent sector. It is debatable whether sixth-forms tailoring their offers exclusively to the requirements of top universities is a good idea. And, if the suggestion from education secretary Michael Gove last week that applicants are judged according to their individual A-level rankings rather than grades goes ahead, then getting them into these institutions could become even harder. But at least this is an area state schools have some power to address.
What they do not have is the ability to force pupils to apply to a university that they or their parents do not want them to go to. But that is exactly what schools are about to be publicly and officially judged on.
School accountability is being brought into unfamiliar territory that teachers may find alarming, unfair and strange. The point of relating the conversation with Ms Liddicoat was not to criticise the head or her school - Clarendon House has a good Ofsted rating and its pupils achieve A-levels with an average points score worth three A grades. The reason was to demonstrate the lack of awareness among schools about the vast variations in the proportions of their pupils progressing to universities.
The Sutton Trust charity began to a shine a light on this previously murky area earlier this year when it published a huge set of data comparing school and college A-level results with their pupils' progression rates to all universities and to the 30 most selective. It revealed seemingly damning discrepancies between schools with very similar exam results. But when TES contacted schools, many heads knew nothing of the study or their school's own figures. And, in some ways, why should they? It is exam results that schools are judged on in Ofsted reports and league tables, not how many of their pupils actually end up in university.
Now that is about to change. The Department for Education is currently working on its own version of this "destination data" for official league tables. And it plans to take the Sutton Trust study up a couple of notches by comparing schools on the percentage of pupils achieving Oxbridge and Russell Group university places.
"I know some people might say, 'How can I be held accountable for what happens in an institution over which I have no control?'" Mr Gove has said. "But, if you have educated someone to the age of 18 sufficiently well, and if you give them the right guidance so they make the right choices, then the chances are that they will find the right courses and succeed."
Punching above its weight
Cockermouth School, singled out for praise by the Sutton Trust, is probably the most powerful piece of evidence in favour of Mr Gove's argument.
The social mobility charity noted that the comprehensive's "comparatively modest", below-average A-level results were not even among the top 20 in Cumbria. Yet it managed to send four-fifths of its sixth-formers to university and a third to one of the 30 most selective.
Other schools with similar and better results come nowhere near its selective university success rate. And the state schools that do manage to send higher percentages to the top universities usually have much higher grades.
Children of low-paid tourist workers, accountants, doctors and farmers all attend what is a genuinely all-ability community school in Cockermouth, which educates 90 per cent of local pupils. And more than two-thirds of them come from families with no history of university education.
But the school aims to inculcate high expectations from an early age. Former pupils return to talk about university life and children are told about higher education almost as soon as they join the school.
"We always talk to them about coming to school for the next seven years before you go to university," says headteacher Geoff Walker. "We never assume they will leave at 16. But there is no hot-housing of children into higher education. We talk about apprenticeships as well."
That encouragement is stepped up as pupils progress through the school. Mr Walker, who has been head of three schools, has never known so much advice on universities to be given to their Year 11 pupils.
A "traditional" approach to A-level subjects is another ingredient, with the vast majority of sixth-formers taking courses like science, maths, English, humanities and modern foreign languages. Media studies and sociology are off limits in a policy designed to meet requirements of elite universities.
The final piece of the Cockermouth success story is the links the school has forged with Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle and Cumbria universities. They provide opportunities for lecturers to visit Cockermouth and talk to pupils, and for pupils to stay on campuses and get a taste of university life.
Most important of all, they have allowed trust to develop. "The universities recognise that the students we are asking to apply are good students and are going to get the grades," says Mr Walker. "That helps with admissions tutors. They know we are not wasting anybody's time. When you have a good reputation and a relationship, that helps."
But reputations take time to build. Some schools, like Barnsley Academy (see panel, opposite), serving communities with virtually no tradition of university education are right at the start of the journey. The new league-table measure will not make particularly comfortable reading for them. But for once, low exam results will be their saving grace. Although 10 of the 13 pupils that left Barnsley Academy's embryonic sixth-form this year won a university place, none made it to a top selective one. But then no one would expect them to at a school where the average A-level grade is just over D.
It is the schools with high exam results but relatively low progression rates that are likely to be put under the greatest scrutiny and pressure by this new measure. Fort Pitt Grammar in Kent, for example. This Chatham girls' school is, as its name suggests, academically selective and has A-level results to match. Pupils achieved average point scores worth more than three A* grades.
With consistently high performances like that, you might expect a large majority to be winning places at elite universities, as is the case in most schools with similar results. But the Sutton Trust study showed that at Fort Pitt an average of just 16 per cent of pupils was accepted to the 30 most selective universities.
It is not that they are being entered for "soft" subjects frowned upon by admissions tutors. Headteacher Julia Bell says pupils take the full range of "traditional" A-levels.
Presumably, then, by Mr Gove's logic, the school cannot be giving its pupils the "right guidance". It must be doing something wrong.
Not according to Ms Bell: "We do all the practice interviews and use people who went to Oxbridge to advise pupils. It (the low number going to the most selective universities) is nothing to do with preparation. If it were I could do something about it."
Ofsted supports her case. In 2009 the watchdog rated Fort Pitt's sixth-form "outstanding". Its report said: "The school works hard to encourage students to apply to top universities and to interest them in universities beyond the local area, where two in five chose to go this year."
That sentence hints at what is really happening. Those "local" universities include Kent and Sussex - research-based institutions with proud academic records, not former polytechnics. But neither is a member of the elite Russell Group included in the Sutton Trust's 30 most selective universities. So they do not show up in the charity's figures and nor will they in the most demanding of the Government's proposed new destination measures.
"It is not that our pupils are getting rejected by top universities," says Ms Bell. "If they apply they usually get in. But not as many are applying."
In the seven years she has been at Fort Pitt, Ms Bell has seen Russell Group applications drop as exam results have improved, and she believes the reason is financial. "The distance that pupils are prepared to go shrinks as the costs of university increase," she says.
The fact that Fort Pitt serves one of England's most socially disadvantaged areas is unlikely to be a coincidence. If you rank the 164 remaining grammars according to their success in selective university admissions, a broad pattern emerges. It has little to do with exam scores, which are spread pretty randomly, but lots to do with the wealth of the area served by the school.
The only two grammars with worse progression rates than Fort Pitt are also both in Chatham. And schools in other deprived parts of north Kent, including Ramsgate, Dover and Sittingbourne, litter the bottom of the table. At the top end are grammars serving prosperous areas like Kingston upon Thames, Altrincham and Tunbridge Wells.
Ms Liddicoat has no doubts about the link. "We come from one of the most deprived areas in the country and if you ask lots of our kids where they are going, a lot will say 'local'. A lot of our parents don't have a lot of money and will say Kent University because it is close to home. It is about what they can afford."
It is a similar story at Highsted Grammar in Sittingbourne, where A-level scores were even higher than at Fort Pitt but only 24 per cent of pupils were admitted to one of the top 30 selective universities. John Deakin, deputy head at the girls' school, said pupils tended to target Kent, Greenwich and Canterbury Christchurch universities - all close to home.
"The ethos when they arrive is often that they have made it by getting to a grammar school and that when they come out they want to work in a beauty salon or hairdresser's.
"We see it as quite an achievement that later on so many of them end up going to university."
The case that lack of progression to elite universities has less to do with exam results or the policies of an individual school than the level of aspiration in an area is backed up by the Sutton Trust study. The charity's analysis of local authority areas shows that in Reading an "extraordinary" 9 per cent of sixth-formers won an Oxbridge place. But it is a dramatically different picture in Rochdale, where only 0.05 per cent made it into one of England's two ancient universities. And in Knowsley, Merseyside, not a single sixth-former achieved the feat in three years. If lack of progression to top universities was the fault of individual schools, then these huge geographical discrepancies would be unlikely.
Either there is a remarkable coincidental concentration of schools doing the "right" thing in Reading and getting it wrong in Knowsley, or the differences have more to do with the general socio-economic nature of an area than the individual policies of a school.
The Sutton Trust notes that the "common denominator" in areas with the best progression to the most selective universities "appears to be prosperity". In which case, is it fair to judge schools on circumstances completely beyond their control?
As Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), argues: "The problem with a destination measure in any form is that it is largely going to reflect the social composition of the families of students and not really give you much information, if any, about the work that the institution is doing to encourage people to go to the most prestigious universities."
But why should the prosperity of an area make so much difference to university entrance? One possible reason is that, until relatively recently, a university education was confined to a small, generally affluent section of the population. Higher education has undergone a massive expansion recently, but that does not mean everybody's aspirations have caught up.
Fort Pitt may be a grammar school with incredible A-level results, but it serves a community lacking a tradition of higher education. Figures from 2009 showed that only around 30 per cent of pupils at the school came from families with experience of university.
Mr Deakin of Highsted Grammar, which serves a similar area, says: "It will take a generation to get real educational change in this area." But if a pupil is motivated enough to achieve good A-level results, then surely it should be easy enough to get them to apply to university as well?
The Sutton Trust study shows that 78 per cent of comprehensive school sixth-formers actually did apply to university, with 69 per cent accepted. Even in the fifth of comprehensives with the lowest A-level results, 70 per cent applied and 60 per cent were accepted. So it is not getting pupils to apply to university that is the problem. It is, as Highsted and Fort Pitt both testify, getting them to apply to the most selective.
In Knowsley - the Oxbridge black hole - Frank Gill, principal of the local sixth-form college, argues that there is a deep-seated antipathy to such institutions. "There is a reverse prejudice, if you like, when it comes to these universities, despite the good work our teachers do," he says. "There will always be an inherent belief among families that these places are alien to them. I am sure that is a factor."
But, Mr Gove might argue, what about Cockermouth School? More than two-thirds of pupils at the comprehensive come from parents who did not go on to higher education, yet it has an amazing record of progression to the most selective universities.
But here, too, there are particular circumstances that may not be replicated elsewhere. In remote west Cumbria, "local" university options for pupils who want to stay at home are virtually non-existent. Even the limited range of courses offered by the new Cumbria University in Carlisle are at least a 25-mile drive away.
"We tell them from an early age that you need to leave home if you want to go to university," says headteacher Mr Walker. If you are going to leave home you might as well set your sights high. And that is exactly what Cockermouth pupils do, applying to Oxbridge and other top selective universities all over the country.
In that respect, Cockermouth School's remote location gives it a distinct advantage over north Kent grammars - a fact that a league-table destination measure would be unlikely to recognise. And if university progression is connected to the socio-economic background of pupils, is it fair to expect schools alone to address these barriers? Shouldn't other institutions in society being doing their bit as well? Universities, for example?
David Lammy, the former Labour higher education minister, certainly thinks so. This year he accused Oxford and Cambridge universities of an "abject failure" in widening admissions, attacking them for their "don't blame us, blame the schools" approach. He highlighted the fact that in 2008 and 2009 Oxford targeted 770 of its outreach events at private schools, including nine for Eton, and contrasted their record with US universities like Harvard and Yale.
"The difference in their outreach work is that they mean it," he wrote. "The Ivy League institutions will stop at nothing to get the brightest and most capable through their doors."
And even Mr Walker at Cockermouth, where close links with top UK universities have worked so well, believes they could be doing more. Noting the most shocking finding from the Sutton Trust study, he says: "If four (independent) schools (and one sixth-form college) in England are sending more children to Oxbridge than 2,000 other schools put together, then even though there is a lot of effort it obviously isn't working.
"We know there will be brilliant and talented students from those 2,000 schools who should get places but are not doing so."
The debate over whether universities are doing enough to open access has raged ever since the Laura Spence affair in 1999 - when then chancellor Gordon Brown accused Oxford University of "elitism" and anti-state school prejudice when it turned down the straight-A comprehensive-educated schoolgirl's application for a place to study medicine - and is likely to continue to do so. In the meantime, the voices that are blaming schools are growing in strength and number. The Sutton Trust research has shed light on an important area, uncovering differences in university progression that the schools themselves were unaware of.
If two schools in seemingly very similar circumstances have radically different success rates, then it must be worth finding out what is going on. But making such "destination measures" part of official high-stakes league tables and inviting parents to make instant and simplistic comparisons is a different thing entirely. As Mr Ward of the ASCL argues: "There is a very great danger it will give very misleading information.
"A school or college that is working very hard to persuade young people to go (to Oxbridge) could still have much less success than one that is doing very little but has a lot of middle-class pupils who will instinctively want to go to university anyway."
For years, schools serving the most deprived areas have argued that it is unfair to judge them on their raw exam results without taking into account the impact of their pupils' disadvantaged backgrounds. But at least they have been able to do something direct towards overcoming that disadvantage and raising pupils' achievement. Now they face being publicly held to account on outcomes that in many cases they have no control over at all.
Getting pupils into university, or rather "college", is the overriding aim of many US charter schools and now their techniques are being applied in England.
Dave Berry, principal of Barnsley Academy in South Yorkshire, realised he needed to do something different in 2008 when he saw pupils patting themselves on the back for grade Ds.
"It became plain to me that, while we as staff had worked very hard and wanted the children to succeed, we had failed to get the children to want it enough for themselves," he says.
He found a solution later that year on a visit to New York, where he was struck by the powerful "in your face" visual messages displayed all over charter schools aimed at raising pupil aspiration.
Now the academy, serving estates dogged by generations of unemployment with little tradition of higher education, is aping charter-school tactics with its "teacher achievement boards".
The displays show teachers' degree certificates, details of the university they attended and photographs of them in their graduation gowns.
"It means we have a university presence in every classroom," says Mr Berry. "It sparks pupils' interest in what it was like for their teachers, what they studied, how long were they there for, did they move away from home?"
With a sixth-form that only opened in 2007, he is playing a long game. But the approach is already paying dividends, with three-quarters of pupils saying they want to go to university.
Mr Berry knew he was making a difference on last year's results day. "I saw a pupil with a D shed a tear and express frustration," he says. "It sounds like a cruel thing to say, but it helped me believe we had made a difference."