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3:50pm on Thursday, 23rd September, 2010:

University Access


Take 100 would-be students at random. How many of them are bright enough to go to Oxford or Cambridge?

Well, statistically, one of them will get in. Both Oxford and Cambridge take around 2,900 new undergraduates each year, and there are roughly 600,000 applicants to all universities, so one in a hundred will go to Oxbridge.

If you look at student backgrounds, though, 1 in 100 don't go to Oxbridge. In 2008/9, only 75 students from a disadvantaged background went to Oxford (out of 2,875); for Cambridge, it was 105 (out of 2,930).

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds aren't stupid, they're jus disadvantaged. The chances are that if you took 100 disadvantaged kids, 100 middle class kids and 100 upper class kids, you'd find the same proportion of smart ones to dim ones in each band; the difference in exam performance isn't down to the hardware of the kids' brains, it's down to the data they've been given to process. The brightest kids from disadvantaged schools have just the same amount of processing power in their brains as the brightest kids from privileged backgrounds; put them in the right environment and they'll flourish just as well as their better-off peers. Except, they're not going to get the chance because they have to get mega-grades in their A-levels. They can't do that any more than a smart rich kid who went to their school could.

A report out today notes that bursaries don't attract kids from poor backgrounds to go to Oxbridge. Well yes, that's pretty obvious; as I've noted before, what puts people off Oxbridge isn't the expense or the teaching or the accommodation, it's the fact that they want 3 As, an entrance exam and to impress at an interview. That's much harder for someone from a non-wealthy background than for someone who went to a selective school.

If we're really serious about getting the best education for the smartest kids from any background, then the way to do it is to admit by relative performance, not absolute performance.

There are about 3,300 secondary schools and 6th form colleges in the UK. OK, so allocate each one of them one scholarship to Oxbridge. The best student out of each year in each school is guaranteed a place, irrespective of whether they get AAA or DDD. What matters isn't that they're in the top 1% of a biased national scale in which notionally identical schools are actually considerably different; what matters is that they're in the top 1% of their own school, where the quality of education is indeed consistent for each cohort.

OK, so there would have to be adjustments made for numbers; perhaps give one scholarship for every 150 students the school has who apply to university. There would be some gaming at the margins, with schools that have 140 students encouraging no-hopers to apply so they get an Oxbridge place, but on the whole we'd end up with half the intake at Oxbridge being the brightest kids of their year, and the rest being either rich kids as now or other bright kids who managed to meet the entrance qualifications.

Yes, I know, it's never going to happen. Those in power whose children currently take the lion's sahre of Oxbridge places wouldn't stand for it. "But what if there were two equally exceptionally bright children — only one would be able to go to Oxbridge, which would be unfair on the other". Well gee, given that at the moment neither would get to go, at least it's an improvement.

What might work instead would be if a new university were set up that had this kind of entrance system. Let Oxbridge get on with being universities for the well-off like they've always been, and build a new one that took students on a best-of-school basis rather than a best-of-best-school basis. Fund it really well, give it large research endowments to attract the best academics, and you'd have a top quality, world-beating institution. Why? Because you really would have the brightest 18-year-olds going to it, not the ones whose parents have paid to make them appear to be brighter than they actually are.

If you want an elistist education system, you may as well make it meritocratic while you're about it...

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).