University Challenge: Whitehall, Milburn …

A few weeks ago I sat down with colleagues from GSA to talk to Sir Peter Lampl. Any who have met or heard him must agree that this is a significant, passionate mover in the world of society and education, and I was as impressed as I have ever been by an individual. He genuinely and rightly sees schools as engines of social mobility, and who will disagree? But we were there in part to challenge recent research by the Sutton Trust into UCAS personal statements which draws stark contrasts between those written by independent school candidates and those written by their state school counterparts. Indeed it makes a virtue of this comparison, putting excerpts side by side in tables. Why, we were asking, does the Trust continue to pit sector against sector? 

And now Michael Willshaw is at the same game. It’s frustrating, since we teach pupils, as they analyse their history or science, to be subtle, to think critically about easy answers and not to fall prey to rhetoric and emotion.  Which is why the latest Milburn report is so disappointing, emphasising as it does – wrongly – the divide between the ‘poor, disadvantaged’ state sector and the rich toffs in their private castles. For those who have not struggled through the latest report (The Fair Access Challenge – available at ) here are a couple of excerpts: ‘there is a state school penalty in the admissions process equivalent to one A level grade’ and ‘[we must] reduce the number of missing state educated students’. This latter is particularly one-dimensional in its thinking, with the authors drawing up a table telling each top university how many more state-educated students it ought to take. 363 is the number for Oxford, apparently, though the fact the Queen’s Belfast is seemingly taking 459 too many state educated pupils is glossed over. 
Well, we must applaud the work Alan Milburn and others are doing, not least because it emphasises the role of education as an engine of social mobility. Milburn’s previous report made it clear that categorising students by school type (independent/state or even high/low performing) was wrong – he called these ‘blunt measures’. They are.

This new report exposes frustration, which is understandable, but frustration appears to have led to confusion and some emotive language. No student ‘needs to be two grades better’ because of their school background; nor is there a ‘penalty’ applied to state schools: this is ill-informed scaremongering.  We can understand Milburn’s frustration that his mission – to get a wider social mix at top universities – appears to be stalling. But the answer is not to cripple applications from independent schools: it is to improve information and guidance at all schools, and raise aspiration.

Here Lampl too gets passionate:  over half of state school teachers, he has found, don't WANT their pupils to try for Oxbridge. That's not our fault: we DO want them to try. The best should go there, purely and simply. When half the England football team come from Manchester United, we don't say well, we must handicap United: no, we ask ourselves what they are doing so well which we could all do better. And for schools, by the way, we can’t say independent schools do better because of academic selection, because most HMC schools aren't particularly selective. And we can’t say cash, because we probably educate at about the same expense as the state. We can say independence, accountability and a relentless focus on what is best for the child.

We all want a fair social mix at university, but above all we want the best students to go to the best university. No student should be penalised because of the group to which some official has decided he belongs; it is lazy thinking and unworthy of the authors of this report to assume that a ‘better’ ratio of state students will lead to better social mix.

Our experience is that admissions teams at universities are fair, and keen to be fair: for the moment, they are trying to fill their places, and they will do so only with those who are qualified. The challenge to some state schools is to achieve high attainment and good information and guidance. We are keen to help with UCAS guidance, providing regional ‘hubs’ for advice for example.

We are in favour of contextual data, too: every individual application has its school and social context. We applaud the undertaking to do more work on developing subtler, more meaningful contextual data. We are opposed though to the use of crude binary data because it helps no-one: does Mr Milburn really want more socially privileged grammar school students at Russell Group Universities and fewer full bursary, socially disadvantaged independent school candidates? 

By Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of The King's School, Chester and Co-Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Sub-Committee.