Telling the truth about schools

Is it fair that the quality of the education received should be considered alongside the bare statistics of exam results by universities seeking new students? Deborah Orr of the Guardian certainly thinks so.  For her,  exam board AQA’s plan to rank A-level students according to the school they attended seems not radical, but rather a scheme whereby more detailed information is imparted.

Britain’s biggest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), has floated the idea at the party conferences, arguing that it might help universities identify bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Neil Stringer, author of the proposal and a senior research associate at the exam board’s Centre for Education Research and Policy, suggests students should be awarded an exam score based on their three best A-level grades, then put into different performance bands.

Those who attend weak schools, but perform highly would be awarded extra points, while those who perform well at top public schools would have points taken off. All pupils would then be ranked, based on their final scores.

The response from Nick Gibb, the schools minister, Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow education secretary and Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, has been, broadly speaking, unenthusiastic. They seem to feel that schools can do more to enhance the ambition of their students, encourage them to apply for the top universities, etc.   But schools have always been motivated and under pressure to do this – it is hard to see what more most schools can do in this respect.

I think that one reason the idea has met with a relatively frosty reception is that there is an unspoken realization that universities are, in their different ways, already making haphazard adjustments on the basis of the school that an applicant has attended. This is true at every level of the university spectrum, from the Russell Group downwards, and most schools and universities would rather the process of adjustment remained subjective and unofficial, perhaps in order to avoid all sorts of legal minefields.

But there is no doubt that students should be credited with success in a variety of difficult circumstances. I would argue that this is particularly true for our own students at Oxford Home Schooling, because those who opt for home schooling face a number of obstacles that children in “regular” schools do not face.

To achieve the same grades, they will need to develop qualities of organisation, resourcefulness, self-motivation and resilience, and these are all qualities which will give them a head start in higher education. Where universities are aware that good grades have been achieved in this context, it seems reasonable for them to give such a candidate appropriate offers.

If there is to be no official recognition that universities should take account of the school that a candidate has come from,  the weighting remains very haphazard indeed.  A typical admissions tutor cannot be expected to know that this comprehnsive is better than that comprehensive, so some candidates will be “luckier” than others.  While this is not ideal, it seems to be better than trying to maintain the fiction that a grade B is worth exactly the same whatever the circumstances of study.

So I am inclined to agree with Deborah Orr in supporting Mr Stringer’s proposal.

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