Universities ordered to favour state school pupils

Universities will be ordered to give preferential treatment to pupils from struggling state schools ahead of their privately educated rivals.

A report commissioned by Gordon Brown says universities should consider the quality of candidates' schools and tailor the A-level results they demand accordingly.

The proposals would mean pupils from private schools would need better grades than those from poorly performing state schools to win places on the same course.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Universities, such as Magdalen College, Oxford, pictured, will be ordered to give preferential treatment to pupils from struggling state schools

The report from the National Council for Educational Excellence is to be presented to Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Universities Secretary John Denham tomorrow.

It is part of the Government's drive to encourage more disadvantaged pupils into university, but is likely to anger independent schools and families who pay for their children to be educated privately.

Critics have warned the proposals could damage the reputation of British universities internationally, and said the Government should focus on improving standards at state schools so that such discrimination was not necessary.

Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College in Berkshire, said: 'I think there's always danger when you artificially prop up a system.

'The real effort ought to be to bring up the standard of state schools to independent schools.'

The report will say that universities should consider all 'contextual data' about a candidate's school, including A-level performance and the number of pupils who go on to university.

It will argue that pupils from the poorest families are being let down by the state school system, according to reports yesterday.

Steve Smith, vice- chancellor of Exeter University and one of the report's authors, said other attempts to close the gap between state and private schools had failed.

He said: 'There is a massive gap in your chances of going on to higher education depending on what socioeconomic group you belong to and there has hardly been any improvement in the situation.

'That is what we have to put right.'

Less than a third  -  29 per cent  -  of university students currently come from the poorest families and at Oxford and Cambridge the percentage is even lower  -  9.8 per cent and 11.8 per cent respectively.

Universities have tried to address the problem themselves and several already ask for lower A-level grades from pupils at under-performing state schools than from those at private or grammar schools.

But earlier this month Mr Denham said admissions staff should not discriminate against pupils from private schools.

Universities accepting more children from disadvantaged backgrounds already receive extra Government funding.

But Mr Denham said: 'I would be worried about a university that crudely says we are going to disadvantage a candidate because of where they came from.

'I want a system that parents have confidence in, wherever they send their children to school.'

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckinghamshire University, was critical of the proposals.

He said: 'Discrimination of that kind will undoubtedly weaken our universities and make it harder for them to compete in the world league.

'It introduces institutional unfairness.'


The exam system is failing pupils by humiliating the weakest and leaving the brightest 'bored to tears', two leading academics warned yesterday.

A-levels and GCSEs are out of date and should be replaced by an English baccalaureate, according to the officials from the Institute of Education.

This would take in a broader range of subjects and would allow education to be 'tough at the top and inclusive at the bottom'.

Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours said that GCSEs and A-levels encouraged 'mechanical and instrumental learning' and did not equip teenagers for the challenges they will face in the future.

Dr Spours added that many young people had no hope of continuing in general education beyond 16 because of the current system.

'Meanwhile the most capable are often bored to tears because there is a lack of independent working - they just learn facts and regurgitate them,' he said.

The Government is introducing a diploma in September as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels.

But Dr Spours said many private schools had rejected this as not challenging enough.

Schools Minister Jim Knight insisted the diploma had the backing of more than 100 universities.

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