Time to admit a class bias
As the furore of the past fortnight demonstrates, the idea that students from independent schools are being discriminated against by our top universities is an emotive one, especially for those who have invested pound;100,000 or more in school fees. So many students are now achieving top grades at A-level that those at state and (more vocally) independent schools complain that they are being discriminated against.
This debate is generating more heat than light and the resulting smoke-screen obscures the real story: that, based on A-level results, there are more than 3,000 students every year from state schools who should be getting into our dozen or so top universities, but are not.
This represents at least a tenth of the 30,000 successful candidates at those universities. The probability of being accepted is approximately 25 times greater if you come from a private school than from a poor area - double what it should be based on A-level performance.
These state-school students are not being discriminated against directly by the universities, but they are victims of the admissions system. As long as entries depend on predicted results, independent school and affluent state-school students will be the main beneficiaries, and students from schools which do not have a strong academic record, and where teachers and students may underestimate their abilities, will lose out.
The system, as well as being inefficient, is skewed in favour of schools that know the form, and which every year send students to the leading universities, coached by teachers who themselves attended them. Private schools have the lion's share of these teachers, and their spending per pupil is much higher than that in the state sector, resulting in approximately one grade better performance per A-level and more places at top universities than their superior examination performance warrants. So we cannot be sure that our top universities are getting the brightest students.
The Government should be congratulated for urging those universities whose admissions are out of kilter to seek students from state schools and poor areas. This is not bias against independent schools; it is giving the less privileged a fair chance.
As for Bristol University, which has borne the brunt of the independent schools' ire, its admissions policy is based on a study which revealed that students from below-average performing schools can be accepted with slightly lower A-level grades - ABB instead of AAB, for example - and still get a degree which is as good as, or better than, the more usual Bristol entrant.
So Bristol has been giving students from below-average performing state schools a slightly lower offer, but a sense of proportion is essential here. The numbers involved are very small compared with the thousands of state-school pupils who have achieved the necessary A-levels to get into top-ranked universities. And while the line between giving able students from poor backgrounds a chance and sliding into social engineering is a fine one - and the Sutton Trust does not support positive discrimination - this is not what is going on here. This is not "dumbing down".
What is to be done? First, we should move to a post-qualification entry system. So roll on the six-term year. Second, we need something to complement A-levels, such as the American Scholastic Aptitude Test which is used as an entrance test for American universities, and which the Sutton Trust trialled successfully in this country. Third, we should encourage universities in their efforts to reach out and uncover talent in those schools and colleges from which they seldom, if ever, hear.
But the question we should ask ourselves is this: in a league-table dominated culture such as ours, would highly reputable universities such as Bristol really cut their own throats by compromising their academic integrity? The only sensible - and accurate - answer is a resounding No.
Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust