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News Universities are right to accept state school students with lower grades
Private schools are threatening to boycott universities that positively discriminate? Bring it on
There's a growing view that if you attended a state school you'll be given an easy ride into a top university. Outraged by suggestions of positive discrimination in favour of less privileged students, one private school head has suggested schools boycott universities which adopt the practice.
They reckon it's unfair: imagine trying to compete with people who have such a great advantage handed to them…
Some blame Alan Milburn, the government adviser for social mobility, for calling on top institutions to make lower offers to "less-advantaged pupils", others look to the Office for Fair Access, Offa, which challenges universities to try to create a balanced student demographic.
I am one of those state school students who swanned in with a lower than standard offer while my privately-educated peers slaved away to secure their place.
On the University of Bristol's website it states: "We may make lower offers based on whether an applicant is deemed to have experienced an educational disadvantage." The fact that I fell into this category, and therefore represent Bristol's attempt at an outreach policy, is simply insane.
I may have attended a state school but I come from a very smug middle class town, I do not qualify for any bursaries, and I had a pony.
Yet, arriving at the University of Bristol's arts faculty, where state school intake for the academic year 2012-13 stood at just 43.6%, I felt myself at a definite disadvantage.
If I can be considered by some as under-privileged because I don't play polo and have a soft northern accent ("Oh you're northern! That's fun!" remarked a fellow the first time I opened my mouth in a seminar) then it's hard to imagine how someone from a truly modest background would feel here. It's a world where students hang pheasants on their washing lines and people are astonished to hear that you have never been hunting: "Not even once?!"
Last year, state school applications made up just 56.5% of the total applications received by Bristol University. We have to ask ourselves why access to top universities is still so limited. In the academic year of 2011-12 Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol and St Andrews all admitted a student population consisting of less than 60% state school students. This is astounding when you think that privately educated students account for just 7% of the student population in the UK.
Those who cry discrimination in the face of these attempts to make a place at a top university possible for bright but less privileged students do not understand how much of a headstart a private education provides.
In October 2012, the Telegraph published research showing that 30.6% of pupils from private schools achieved three As at A-level, the same figure stood at just 10.7% for state school pupils. It's not a difference in intellectual ability that produces statistics like these.
Earlier this year Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, told the Telegraph: "Private schools are very effective at getting good grades for people whose ability is a bit lower, whose degree performance is not as good as people (from state schools) with the same grades. Admissions officers will take this into account when making offers."
One aspect where the gap in opportunity between state school and privately educated students is particularly apparent is the personal statement. A spokesperson from the Sutton Trust tells me: "Both the quality of presentation and the content (particularly of non-academic matter) of these statements differs starkly."
In 2012, despite having the same grades, 70% of applications from privately educated students were successful in gaining the student a place at a top university in comparison to just 50% of the applications from state schools.
The Sutton Trust is now calling on universities to take "young people's background into account, and judge low and middle income applicants according to the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to them."
We are a long way off equality of educational opportunities. Although I would love to see what a "boycott" of certain universities by private schools would constitute, I don't think they need to worry themselves just yet. We are still some way off levelling the playing field.