It’s a truism that the Higher Education landscape has undergone huge change in the last few years, and those of us who work in senior schools spend, of course, a lot of our time focussing on helping our students get into the best universities. That this is also a key priority for parents is about to be underlined by The Times 2014 Parent Power which next Sunday will focus on secondary schools, and include for the first time an anlaysis of university destinations.
Alastair McCall, who compiles Parent Power, has already briefed the GSA/HMC Universities Committee, and it’s evident he is committed to clear and useful information; he’s also committed to sharing some of the aggregated data with us, so it will be fascinating to see what it shows. Like all surveys built out of self-declared returns it will have its flaws, of course ... Alastair knows that all too well, since he also edits the Times Universities guide, one of whose key criteria, the number of degrees at each level awarded per institution, is self-declaration on a grand scale (don’t, as they say, get me started on degree information and its comparability). But it will give data, and data is good.
Data can, though – should – challenge. That’s why the annual data fix provided by the Chief Executive of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, to this year’s Admissions Conference, was a ‘sit up and take notice’ moment. We are used to being told how good our sector is – and it is – but Mary challenged us in two ways.
One is straightforward: in 2014 18,500 or so Upper Sixth formers in independent schools were predicted AAB or above. 14,500 achieved it. The percentage of our students gaining this magic set of grades has stayed static over the last five years, on or around 64% (a big achievement: it has fallen nationally, and represents the cream of the market after all). But the percentage we predict will gain AAB+ has risen year on year from 2010’s 72% to last year’s 82%! Is it ambitious students pushing for higher predictions, to get offers from great universities which, even if they slip slightly, they will still probably enter? Is it ambitious SMTs setting higher targets? Is it, perhaps, not so much schools from one association but others? It is worth each of us doing our own analysis, because being an accurate predictor might become rather an important criterion for a school!
The other challenge is even more interesting. Just over half of the ‘accepts’ (ie the students who get an offer, take it and go to the institution) last year from ISC schools were to just 5% of the institutions available. And 95% of the accepts were to go on to just 34% of the available courses. In other words, our students are very heavily concentrated: we are, in a sense, highly conservative.
Now you can read this a number of ways. One response might be ‘yes, that’s the sector doing what it does best’: our students study hard subjects and do traditional degrees at the best places. It’s our mission.
Another might be that the kinds of jobs Mary went on to suggest might be more important in the future than we realise – programming, say, or entrepreneurship, jobs in the creative sector or simply ‘brainwork’ (solving probelms intelligently) – can be successfully done by good graduates in traditional subjects. You don’t have to study programming to be a programmer. A Classicist can make a brillaint entrepreneur. This is the argument put of course in Bennett’s The History Boys by the teacher who says ‘If you want to know about Margaret Thatcher, study Henry VIII’.
A third might be to wonder whether some of the ‘newer’ courses might be worth a second glance. To consider whether a ‘fast track’ might sometimes be a conveyor belt.
I am personally inclined to react in the second of these ways. But I suspect more of us ought to know more about more courses at more places, so that even if we react in the first way, we are sure of what it is that we are missing. Or rather that our students are.
Chris Ramsey, Head Master, The King’s School, Chester, and co-Chair of the GSA/HMC Universities Committee