Please let’s put ‘school type’ to bed

Having spent years on HMC’s Universities Committee, I’m well used to familiar themes re-emerging. Student finance was an issue back in 2010, and it still is. The student experience – thanks especially to the great work HEPI have done in recent years – rumbles on as a debate, highlighted of course by Covid. Degree classifications gets a regular outing. But of all the issues which continue to swirl around HE admissions, why is ‘school type’ still getting oxygen?

The always excellent David James led me back down this wearisome path in a recent article for Capx, which he entitled ‘the perils of playing identity Top Trumps’. He argues that recent criticisms of the new Education Secretary, based on his having been a pupil at KCS Wimbledon, are ‘insidious and damaging’, since the implication is that people from a particular background can only really understand others from that background, and therefore presumably shouldn’t hold high office. One might go on to argue that authority should be limited to specific social classes as a matter of principle, an idea so absurd that even the Victorians didn’t subscribe to it. Indeed, writing over a century ago, the second Master of Wellington, Wickham, urges his charges to show understanding and – as he puts it – courtesy to those who come from different backgrounds.

I have been turning over in my mind the recent pronouncement of the new President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, journalist Dorothy Byrne, that 93% of those admitted to Cambridge should be from maintained schools so that the university is ‘more representative of wider society’.

Now, Dorothy Byrne is a journalist, and the statement may have been intended to shock. Or she may have meant, as some have often said, that we should aim for a position where maintained schools are as well-resourced as independent schools, get results and outcomes as excellent, and are therefore performing equally ‘well’ in entry to top universities. That is a philosophically sound – indeed, convincing – viewpoint, and it’s the one my old PGCE mentor had. The real answer to the educational divide, he used to say, is to make state schools so good that no-one wants to go private. A very good idea.

But reading the interview, I’m not so sure that is what the President had in mind. I think she meant what she said, especially as she added that it would be ‘good for Etonians to meet people from other walks of life’. In other words, she wants to mix backgrounds up (which is a socially laudable aim) by using admissions policies (which is not).

I wonder if there’s any use in laying out the three big reasons why I believe this kind of ‘school type’ proposition should be laid to rest forever.

First, students applying to university do not come ‘representing their school background’. They apply as individuals. Their school background is not their ‘fault’, nor is their race or gender. All that should matter is how well they will do on the chosen course. Calls for admissions to be ‘school blind’ are in this sense logical, though I suspect one of the reasons they have not been embraced is because the independent sector would be likely to benefit. And it’s interesting to note that the last sentence of a statement from Cambridge’s Admissions Department makes exactly this point: ‘we admit students on academic merit, regardless of background’, they say. Hold that thought.

Secondly, it is not the business of universities to ‘reflect society’. Universities create knowledge and wisdom, they should improve society by providing thought, debate, research and intellectual challenge. It is illogical to set out to make them reflect society: they are, in the most positive sense, elite. Besides, if they are to ‘represent society’, then why not ensure the full range of political views are reflected, or geographical backgrounds? No sane university official would argue for this, yet they continue to argue for ‘representation’ in one narrow area: school type.

Thirdly, ‘school type’ is nonsensical as a metric anyway. The state sector is incredibly diverse, in terms of academic selection (Grammars/Comprehensives/Sixth Form Colleges, etc), governance (LEA/Academy), attainment and above all social background. There are highly middle-class comprehensives and state schools in areas of great deprivation. They are not a monolithic ‘type’.

Nor, of course, are independent schools. Though the ‘type band’ might be narrower, there are socially underprivileged students, in growing numbers, and there are non-selective schools. And thank goodness: I doubt anyone working in education wants a mono-cultural sector, private or state.

So please let’s stop this ‘school type’ argument. Nobody should get a ‘leg up’ either in university admission or in life, because of where they went to school (and increasingly, they don’t). But nobody should be disadvantaged for it either. It seems so simple and logical, it should hardly be necessary to write or say it.

But it is. And the reason lies not just with Dorothy Byrne, but with Cambridge University itself, whose spokesman commented:

Our objectives are to admit a student body in which no group is under-represented, and to eliminate any gaps between such groups in continuation, attainment and progression. We admit students on individual merit, regardless of background.

There’s that nice, reassuring sentence again, preceded by one which sounds more like what Dorothy Byrne has to say.

Well, you can’t have both. As Hayek wrote, ‘from the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result will be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position is to treat them differently’. 

No, Cambridge’s last sentence directly contradicts the first. And for the reasons I’ve tried to outline above, it’s the first that should be binned.

 

A blog by Chris Ramsey

Chris is Headmaster of Whitgift, chaired the USC from 2013-20 and now sits on the Finance and Risk steering group.