It aint what you do it’s where you do it

Britain’s largest exam board, AQA is announcing proposals to factor the type of school that A level candidates have attended into “university points” to be awarded alongside their A level grades. Unsurprisingly, this measure of social engineering has been criticised by usual suspects like Toby Young ( ).

The point of the proposal seems to be to attempt to redress educational disadvantages faced by students attending schools with a wide range of abilities or other factors which might impact on students’ raw academic performance when measured against more uniform standards like a mark scheme being applied blindly to all candidates. There has been some research, notably by the Sutton Trust, that suggests that comprehensive-educated students tend to out-perform similarly qualified and some higher qualified independent school students at university. The implication is that focusing on A level scores at the point of university entrance might lead to students being admitted to competitive courses at selective universities who are likely to do less well in those courses than other candidates with lower entry marks.

This takes the debate away from the easy criticism of social engineering or attempting to bash independent schools for ideological reasons and is covered interestingly in a blog post by Cardiff Law School Professor Richard Moorhead ( ) from earlier in the year.

Unfortunately, I think that the proposal is both self-interested and potentially self-defeating. It is self-interested because, I suspect, its principal motivation is a commercial one. AQA, like the other examination boards is a profit-making business, competing with the other examination boards to put together syllabuses and qualifications which will be adopted by the most schools and colleges around the country (and internationally). The vast majority of schools in England and Wales are state comprehensive schools. This proposal is neatly targeted at each of them with the message – enter your students for our exams and they will get an advantage when applying to university.

I think it will also be self-defeating. This is because the only real value in the proposal is in enabling students applying to selective universities to differentiate themselves from similarly or higher qualified students from more privileged schools or who are lower down the order of merit in their own schools. However, those selective universities, even if broadly supportive of attempts to provide them with better information to use in differentiating between candidates, might not agree with the methodology used. Other syllabuses and examination boards might develop a degree of kudos about them, or the kudos that they might already have might be crystallised by AQA’s move. In the past the Oxford & Cambridge Board exams used to be favoured by the old public schools, whether rightly or wrongly on the basis of the syllabuses looking more traditional and perhaps the association with those great universities. In a system where doing an AQA paper might be perceived as attempting to get special pleading in well before even attending a first class in the sixth form the benefits of the “university points” from AQA might be diluted. That would reflect on schools, but more importantly and unfairly, on candidates. If other boards declined to follow AQA’s lead or adopted different systems for grading schools and relative performance within them, there would be little value to the points to universities and consequently to the candidates taking the papers.

If such a system has merit it cannot be led as a commercial strategy by one exam board. I’m uneasy about the concept of grading people according to their social background but if it is to be done at all it needs to be done as an overtly political act capable of democratic scrutiny. Most people can be relatively sanguine about seeing a difference in the ability and effort needed by a student from a “sink” school with unsupportive parents who spends their sixth form working two part time jobs and comes out with AAA and on the other hand, the boy who is coasting along in the third stream at Eton and gets the same results. That’s why even the critics of the proposal use other, less obvious examples like “the child from a poor family who scrimp and save and the school gives their child a scholarship” – that child is one who would be at the top end of the ability scale wherever they went and will not have worked significantly less hard to get there than anyone else.

The thing is, the sink school prodigy and the Etonian coaster would be very obviously different without there being any artificial “university points” but, would the sink school prodigy be all that different from the Etonian prodigy who might have been wealthy and privileged but otherwise no different? Deciding that the system should actively punish the Etonian prodigy for the fact that he went to Eton is a very political act. Perhaps it would be a popular one. But it should be a political decision because of it.

If there is to be a process for accounting for educational background, I think a good approach would be to tie it in to the value add provided by a school. The data has been compiled for some time and could easily be revived. It is intended to show a difference between schools and whether they manage to go beyond merely meeting the expected level of attainment relative to the abilities and characteristics of their intakes. UCAS points scores could be based upon a multiple of scores for the grades achieved and the school’s value add score. There would be no possibility of avoidance at least for those schools that prepared their students for A levels. I explored some more of the detail here in my second comment on Professor Moorhead’s piece linked above.

But, the best approach would be to reverse the grade inflation which is the ultimate cause of difficulty for universities seeking to select the best candidates and then to leave it to individual admissions tutors to decide on the basis of their own experiences and policies what allowance to make for individual candidates’ personal histories. When the majority of Etonians get AAA alongside the personal “gloss” and confidence of such an education of course there will be difficulties for those who have overcome all barriers to gain similar grades as a local outlier. So make it so that the 60th best Etonian in the year gets the C and D grades he would have done a generation ago.


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