Imagine that you are a state educated kid. You’re about to start your final year of secondary school, and thus your GCSE exam year. For almost your entire life you have heard around the place that going to university is the only way to improve your life. Stats from HESA indicate that 88.5% of entrants to universities in the UK are from state schools and colleges. Encouraging stuff.
You know that you don’t have to go to university, but you want to. So you choose a college and start you’re A-levels. You then read this:
‘Universities could turn away increased numbers of state school pupils from the poorest backgrounds as a number of elite institutions begin asking for the new A* grade at A-level, the government's watchdog on fair access to higher education has warned.
Sir Martin Harris, director of the government's Office for Fair Access, said the new grade could strengthen private schools' hold on elite universities.’ The Guardian, Monday 2 August 2010.
What does this mean for you now? You still want to go to uni so do you work any less? No. According to the HESA stats you are still likely to get into university only now you are trying to get 90% of your marks rather than 80%. More difficult? Certainly. Should you therefore give up? Certainly not.
It has long been argued that asking for AAA entry requirements may be too difficult for some state educated pupils to achieve. Before the election Lord Mandelson was reportedly looking at reducing the entry requirements for ‘poorer kids’. But HESA’s stats seem to indicate that state educated’s need no favoritism.
Kate Purcell, who led the research at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, prepared a paper for HECSU which argues that there is "a public and professional need for a more precise taxonomy of universities". "The tariff points required... are generally indicative of the comparative status of the institutions and the competition to enter them," it adds. So entry requirements are constantly evolving, Kate argues, is the A* A-level requirement the next necessary step in the evolution of the system?
In the Tweet conversation that inspired this blog, Martin Hughes (@universityboy) and Newell Hampson-Jones (@NHJ_HE) both agree that beneath Sir Martin’s concern for widening participation is an even greater problem waiting to explode within the sector: what comes next? When students are getting three A*’s how will the system cater to the increased demand? All three of us agree, that a fundamental reform of the current A-level system is desperately needed, something I think is very nicely highlighted by Reform’s paper ‘A New Level.’
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said in The Guardian in April: "Students from poorer backgrounds do often need more support in terms of mentoring as well as financial support at university. Research has shown students from state schools outperform their independent-schooled contemporaries when they reach university. It is absolutely vital that students are not priced out of university by any new measures from the forthcoming fees review."
Provided that the financial situation is communicated effectively as not being a barrier to HE, I believe that state educated students are more than capable of overcoming any hurdles between them and their goal provided that they are bright enough. They conquered the A grade. They can conquer the A*. We should really have more faith in them.