The Sutton Trust has called on universities to lower entrance grades for youngsters from poorer backgrounds. Its researchers conclude that ‘contextual admissions’ will boost the number of free-school-meals pupils making it to leading universities.
This latest demand for even more social engineering in our education system comes in the wake of a report by Labour MP David Lammy. He has discovered that white middle-class children from the south of England dominate entrance to Oxbridge. More than a hundred MPs have backed his call for Oxford and Cambridge to recruit more students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.
How could any rational person be against a fair entrance system for our universities? The country needs to maximise the potential of its young people, not least for the success of our economy. Is dumbing down university entry requirements for the disadvantaged, however, the way forward? I fear not.
With the demise of AS-level exams, university admission offers are increasingly dependent on GCSE results. Since a ‘good’ pass in maths can now be achieved with just 15 per cent of the marks, there is very little room for lowering grades. Indeed, it could be argued that universities should be expecting higher grades from applicants. After all, the level of GCSE maths is about the level of what is taught in primary school in parts of the Asia-Pacific, as the BBC discovered when it sent a team to South Korea last year.
Equally remarkable is the OECD’s finding that disadvantaged pupils in Shanghai, the bottom 10 per cent in socio-economic terms, achieve more highly at the age of 15 than the top 20 per cent in the UK. In other words, the sons and daughters of shopfloor workers in Shanghai outperform most of the kids at our top schools, including the private ones.
There should be a lesson here for the Sutton Trust and the David Lammy group. We will maximise the potential of all our children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, only when we very significantly improve the quality of teaching in our schools. Rather than lowering the grade bar for entrance, universities should be raising it to offset the dumbing down of the exam system. Instead, universities, including Oxbridge, run remedial ‘catch-up’ courses to compensate for the failure of too much classroom teaching. What an indictment of our education system.