Are elite universities and the profession wrong to favour public school pupils?

Entry to the professions and elite universities is heavily influenced by performance at school.  To get into elite law schools  students usually need to get at least AAA and some schools have started to demand A*s.  This discriminates heavily against pupils graduating from state school who do more poorly at A-level as a group, for a variety including it appears socio-economic factors.  Oxbridge colleges have come under renewed scrutiny for the social make-up of their student body: the data makes appalling reading.

Is discrimination which arises from reliance on the highest A-level scores justified by the competencies demonstrated by those three AAAs?  Research by the Sutton Trust, discussed on Conor Ryan’s excellent blog, suggests not.  He writes:

“The Trust, in a study originally meant to show the benefits of adopting a US-style SAT for entrance, has instead shown pretty conclusively that all other things being equal, a comprehensive school student will outperform a grammar or independent school undergraduate at an elite university. In other words, when universities award a place to a bright state pupil with just 3Bs when the same place would require AAB from an independent or grammar student, they are not ‘dumbing down’ but exercising both common sense and social inclusion.”

Bristol University was roundly criticised for ‘discriminating’ against public school pupils when it sought to broaden its criteria.  I have also blogged on US research which suggests we should be wary of the idea of eliteness when choosing lawyers and look more closely at relative achievement.  The Sutton Trust research is also relevant to aptitude tests, but I’ve not had a chance to look at the detail.  If Ryan is right both the profession and law schools need to rethink their entry requirements.

6 thoughts on “Are elite universities and the profession wrong to favour public school pupils?

  1. The research may show that as a group comprehensive-educated students with 3Bs do better than selectively-educated students with AAB but in the absence of some mechanism for discerning differences between individuals in either category this isn’t a prescription for lowering entrance requirements for students from comprehensives.

    Comprehensive schools are not all the same. I’ve not read the Sutton Trust report in full but have looked at the section on the impact of school type. It looks at a measure which would differentiate between “good” and “less good” schools by looking at the schools’ GCSE results and seeing how these correlate with attainment for students with the same A levels (ie the extent to which being a BBB student from a school which has poor GCSE results makes you different from one who went to a school with high GCSE results). The effect it found here was similar to the difference between selective and comprehensive students, but not quite as marked.

    This suggests that, if a general policy is to be adopted to offer lower grade requirements for some students it has to be on the basis of more than just a check of what broad type of school the candidate went to. It might be fair enough to require the same marks to all independent school students – if your parents decided to spend £30k a year on St Cakes rather than Eton they just got bad value for money academically.

    You would need to look at how good or bad the comprehensive school a candidate attended. This gets complicated further in relation to those who have attended sixth form colleges which by definition have an intake from a wide variety of comprehensives and other schools.

    There’s a risk of arbitrariness and hence unfairness to individuals in any approach that works on the basis of accounting for background. Should this be statistical unfairness (by adopting measures on the basis of school type etc) or subjective unfairness (by relying on the discretion of admissions tutors to spot aptitude from poor backgrounds). The US model of academic talent scouting by elite schools clearly falls into the latter category and appears to have success. Perhaps this will become a feature in England and Wales tied in with the obligations to widen access to universities wishing to charge the highest fees.

    1. You are right to say, “There’s a risk of arbitrariness and hence unfairness to individuals in any approach that works on the basis of accounting for background.” The problem is there is a demonstrable risk if you do NOT too. The current system discriminates in favour of those who have had their education privately funded and means we get less able graduates as a result. It’s a lose-lose and the system needs to change. How refined those changes can and should be, I would concur with.

  2. Richard

    Really great piece. Very thought provoking. As someone who went to state school (and was lucky enough to get into an elite – or it was then anyway, Durham – university) with A level grades that were definitely not AAA (no stars in those days), and quickly found myself in a noticeable state school minority many of whom had had to achieve “30 pointer” A level scores to get there, my natural instinct is to agree with the argument that there should be dual-entry requirements for state vs private.


    I fear that the potential benefit would be far outweighed by reverse snobbery affecting those state school pupils that got into an elite university, with the effect of making them feel like they shouldn’t be there at all. “Your only here because…..” It’s a form of working/lower middle class positive discrimination.

    There is also the reality of course that many good state schools are better than many poor private schools.

    But, the problem you point out does need addressing.

    I’d therefore argue that it is recruiters (all recruiters, not just law firms), not the Unis, that need to operate some form of informal dual-entry requirement when hiring, or at least adopt a very open-minded approach that looks beyond five or six Unis. A state school student from a tough area of, say, Birmingham, with ABC and a First from, say Uni of Keele, is possibly (but not definitely) a better bet than a private school student from the Home Counties with AAA and a 2(i) from Oxford. Of course, the positive discrimination argument can apply here too, but maybe it would be less noticeable and formulaic at this stage of entry to the profession, compared to Uni-entry level.

    No right answers of course. And this is without even getting into the debate about “working class students done good against the odds” who choose to send their kids to private school to enjoy the benefits they never had, and then finding life made harder for them a second time around because of a dual-entry system! (In case that last point makes it look like I have a vested interest, I could not describe my own upbringing as working class and my kids do not go to private school).

    Final footnote: I recently attended a conference of in-house lawyers. About 40 or so were there. About 4 were female and only 2 or 3 were not White in ethnic origin. Indicative I think of issues in the legal profession that go beyond what school we all went to (or maybe it’s all tied in, you will know better than me).

    Thanks for the great writing.

    Tim Bratton (@legalbrat)

  3. I agree that the present system appears to favour those who went to selective schools but don’t think that a system which principally shifted that windfall to those who went to good comprehensives would be an adequate remedy. An unintended consequence (of eg an across the board base entry requirement reduction for comprehensive applicants) would be to make the good comprehensives even more over-subscribed and hence de facto selective.

    One possibility might be to change the UCAS point system so that it is not based solely on A level grades. A relatively straightforward method would be to make it the product of A level points and the school’s CVA. The CVA calculation methodology might need to be revisited and the scores rebased to give a reliable result when used in this calculation but the underlying data is already collected so there would be minimal compliance cost. It would also make state and private schools much more readily comparable by encouraging private schools to collate similar data. Those which declined to participate could be given a default “emergency” CVA of say 900 on the current system (ie that their UCAS scores would be devalued by 10% compared to those of students from average schools with a CVA of 1000). Universities could choose whether to make offers on the basis of UCAS scores or A level scores, but this would provide a clear and measurable criterion for the access regulator to apply when considering whether universities charging above the £6000 fee rate were taking their access obligations seriously enough to entitle them to charge the higher fees.

    This would also make CVA a useful and important indice for parents in choosing schools, particularly if it was also extended to be used in providing the marks for the “English Bac”.

  4. I have always looked at certain rating requirements with some reservation. At times, certain institutions seem to prefer those scoring over 99%. Yes, they might be brighter, but are they better equipped to deal with the actual world? How will they cope with failure? If all admitted got to their 99% score the same way, then we will never find a person with a new/different approach, possibly even revitalising the legal workplace. The law is in some ways no different than Arts, Science or Engineering. It’s the one thinking different, who will propel us forward.

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