Intra-school rankings could improve social mobility

by Nick Keehan

The first episode of Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders broadcast on BBC Two last week told the how in 1854 Charles Trevelyan introduced the practice of competitive examination for entry into the civil service. The reform was the first step towards a system in which government positions were filled based on merit, rather than being handed out to political allies or reserved for the younger sons of the aristocracy. “From the time this measure receives Royal assent”, a Times editorial in support of the reform proclaimed, “it will be the fault of the people if the public service does not become their birthright, according to the talent, education, and industry of each”.

Not that it was expected that all parts of the public service would become the birthright of all parts of the people. Competition was open to all, but it would still only be the “lower class of appointments”, those “small posts which might recompense the industry of the head boy in the village school”, and which would be “filled by just such an examination as the readiest and best-conducted lads in these schools would succeed in”, to which young people from the lower orders could realistically aspire. Those positions “of great importance and pecuniary value, demanding the attainments and worthy [of] the pursuit of the most educated Englishmen” would in all likelihood remain the preserve of the better off, in whom, it could be safely assumed, the highest levels of talent, education and industry resided.

Attitudes towards aspiration have changed greatly since then, of course. Social mobility is the ideal of all political parties. Nowadays, very few would maintain that talent and industry are the monopoly of the offspring of upper echelons of society. So how to explain the overwhelming predominance of young people from better-off families at elite institutions?

Take universities. On Tuesday David Lammy released some research he had conducted on Oxbridge admissions. While it contained interesting details and highlighted the extent of the problem, the research, for the most part, served to confirm what was generally well-know about our elite universities in general: that they are dominated by the upper and middle classes and that the poor are generally excluded.

Commenting on Lammy’s research, education secretary, Michael Gove, stated that the reason for the lack of poor people at Oxbridge was that “our schools system is not good enough”. This is only partly right. The problem is not the overall level of quality in our schools – after all there is no shortage of applicants with the necessary grades to get into Oxbridge – but with its distribution. Put simply: children from poor families do not get to go to the best schools. The better-off do not monopolise talent and industry, but they do tend to dominate when it comes to receiving the highest standards of education.

Can it be right, however, that the quality of education received should deny young people an opportunity that their ability and hard work would in other circumstances permit them to enjoy? If their standard of education prevents them from benefitting from that opportunity to the same extent as someone who has received a higher standard of education then, maybe, yes. Research, however, suggests that this is not the case.

A five-year research study, co-funded by the department for business, innovation and skills, the national foundation for educational research, the Sutton trust and the college board, found that comprehensive pupils outperform independent and grammar pupils in university degrees. For example, a comprehensive school student with three Bs at A-level is likely to perform as well at university as an independent or grammar school student with an A and two Bs, or two As and a B. At the same time, comprehensive school pupils also performed better than similarly qualified independent and grammar school pupils in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes.

These results suggest that it would be worthwhile for university admissions departments to consider the educational backgrounds of applicants. This has always been an option for universities and many do consider educational background and other similar factors when deciding on applications. However, given the general failure of our elite universities to ensure a socio-economically diverse student population, government could also have an important role to play in supporting these efforts.

In 1999, Peter Wilby proposed a radical reform of university admissions: give every school an Oxbridge place. Basically, the top student at every sixth form or college would be offered a place at Oxford, Cambridge or another top university. Set out in the deliberately crude way that WIlby chose to explain it, the policy was never going to be politically tenable. But the principle was, and is, sound. With some minor changes and a bit of fine-tuning it could work.

An altered version of the policy could operate as follows: alongside the traditional A-level and GCSE grades, exam boards would publish a student’s position within the school based on those grades, either as a ranking, or as a percentile or some other fraction. Universities would be under no compulsion to consider the rankings when making admission decisions. A-level grades could still form the primary basis for university offers. The rankings would, however, be a useful and readily available source of information for admissions officers that would enable them to see how applicants fared in relation to those who achieved the same standard of education. It would be one of those nudges that David Cameron and Steve Hilton like to go on about. One that would enable universities to distinguish more easily between, in the words of Michael Gove, “rich, thick kids” and “poor, clever” ones.

It would not be a panacea. Improving the performance of schools catering for the worst off and ensuring that their pupils felt that going to a top university was something to aspire to would still be necessary goals. The details would need working out. But such a policy could be useful for Labour as it seeks to promote social mobility and equality of opportunity and to further test the Tory-Liberal government’s professed commitment to those ideals.

Nick Keehan works in Parliament.

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