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Spin the wheel and win a top degree course

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HERE’S an interesting idea! In the cause of social justice, why don’t we use an annual lottery to choose who gets to be a doctor, an engineer or a police chief? Patients may die, bridges may collapse and criminals may have an even freer run of it than they have now, but so what? Just consider how much fairer society would be if everyone and anyone could have an equal crack at any career.

‘You can be anything you want to be’ is already a classroom mantra up and down the country. Now, an influential think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, wants to ensure that any youngster’s dream can become a reality. A report by Dr Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at Exeter University, proposes that entrance to the most respected and over-subscribed universities should be based mainly on a lottery. 

In an interview on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme (12 December, 07.50) Dr Elliot Major confirmed that this could mean 10,000 well-qualified applicants from better-off backgrounds missing out. Any unfairness is a price worth paying, it seems, to offset the unfairness of having to attend a ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive school. 

Provided some basic grades are achieved, your name will go into a pot. The pot will be given a good shake and hey presto, if your name is drawn, you will be on the the degree course of your choice at the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Bristol and other sought-after institutions. All in the name of widening access and social justice! 

Life-or-death decisions in the future, whether made by doctors, engineers or police chiefs, may be in the hands of those who gained their degrees by coming up trumps on the equivalent of a roulette wheel in an educational casino!

It would be naive to expect universities to weed out those lottery winners who cannot cope with the course. Just as ‘pass’ marks have been lowered to sustain pass rates at GCSE and A-Level, so degree course demands will be adjusted to match the ability level of students.  

Most universities, including Oxbridge, already offer year-long ‘foundation’ catch-up courses for bright youngsters disadvantaged by attending a failing comprehensive. They appear to have given up on schools themselves solving the problem of pupil underachievement. Through the provision of pre-degree remedial courses our education system deals with the symptoms of educational under-performance but not with the classroom causes. 

This has not always been the case. Grammar schools used to offer academically-able pupils from poor backgrounds a pathway toward fulfilling their potential at leading universities. As that most eminent of educationalists, the late Frank Musgrove, pointed out in Schools and the Social Order (1979), around two-thirds of grammar school pupils in the 1950s were the children of manual workers. Such schools are now few and far between, and mostly in more affluent areas of the country.

Tied to our grammar schools was a grammar school exam, the rigorous GCE O-Level. These days, however, the exam is available only for export. In educationally high-flying Singapore, for example, it is sat by most pupils. In the UK it is in effect banned because it is not on the government’s list of ‘approved qualifications’. Instead, we have the comprehensive school, all-ability GCSE exam. 

The GCSE has recently become a little more demanding, thanks to Michael Gove’s reforms, but is still no more than a diluted version of its O-Level predecessor. In addition, the slightly tougher exams have set alarm bells ringing within the educational establishment, ‘the Blob’, because it has led to ‘a widening of the gap between the results achieved by disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers’.

What better way to offset the inequalities of examination attainment caused by sub-standard schooling than to make access to higher education dependent on a spinning wheel of fortune?

Of course the integrity of any such higher education lottery is undermined if the academic entry threshold is set low, as it surely will be when the aim is social engineering as it is in Britain. 

The judgement of professionals affects broad swathes of our lives, including matters of life and death. It is at our peril that we allow access to these professions to be determined by an educational lottery.

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Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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