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Inequalities, selective schools and a mudslinging storm in a bone china teacup

The debate about access to higher education for students with fewer advantages came to the fore today in the Observer. This is not an especially new idea or problem. However, it may emerge as a spurious reason to establish more selective grammar schools as a remedy. This might indeed help some and many advocate this approach. However, others offer counter evidence that refutes any real benefits. For those making decisions at the sharp end of poverty, the academic ‘mudslinging’ might seem distant and a storm in an expensive china teacup. However, serious mistakes could be made unless those sipping tea from tin mugs get involved and make their case.

The Observer reported today the results of research carried out by academics at University College London (UCL) Institute of Education with  'Top universities ‘not being chosen by low-income students’. Published by the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, and by authors from University College London Institute of Education, Stuart Campbell Lindsey Macmillan Richard Murphy Gill Wyness, ‘Inequalities in Student to Course Match: Evidence from Linked Administrative Data’ is rigorous and authoritative. The general conclusion is that students from disadvantaged areas often do not seek to enter the elite research intensive universities despite attaining A-level grades that would be suitable. Instead, they opt for the less selective institutions. These may be close to home. However, in many cases, the location close to home may not be the only factor in the choices made

The findings are not recent.

The idea that many students opt for universities with lower tariff points (i.e. A level grades) as entry standards is not a new one. Even those who have achieved better grades might tend to be cautious. The report from UCL is also not new. It was published as far back as August of last year. A further report was produced on the same topic by three of the original authors in December for the Nuffield Foundation ‘Mismatch in higher education: prevalence, drivers and outcomes’. The research is based upon data covering a cohort of 140,000 students who took their “compulsory age 16 exams in 2006 and their non-compulsory exams two years later in 2008”, at publicly funded English schools. School information is gleaned from the National Pupil Database (NPD), compiled by the Department for Education for schools in England. This is linked to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) entry information from 2008 and 2009.

Despite the distance in time, this showed clearly that a significant proportion of students were “mismatched” to the course they attended. This simply means that a number opt to go to a lower tariff course or university rather than risk a higher tariff one despite having the grades. The Observer reports the lead author as Gill Wyness who is Associate Professor in Economics of Education, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at UCL. She says that the reason behind the ‘mismatches’ with “It could well be that students from disadvantaged backgrounds might not feel that they fit in at more prestigious places”

The problem is that the data is over ten years old and pertains to the period of a previous government. Many of the so-called ‘elite’ universities have spent significant time and resources on widening access and ‘outreach’ since then. Therefore the proposition that such activities would help in making choices by “providing information, advice and guidance, in a targeted way that tries to break down existing barriers in terms of both understanding and perceptions, can only result in more informed choices” could be tested. Conversely, the situation might have worsened in the intervening period as the debt burden from fees and maintenance loans has risen sharply.

The economic argument is dismissed.

The research report is mostly observational and is not designed to test any hypothesis regarding the reasons for the prevalence of mismatches for less advantaged students. However, the authors' reason that economic factors are not likely to be important in the choices made. Fees and maintenance costs are excluded as a likely cause on the grounds that “in the UK system - all college fees and living costs are covered by income-contingent loans which are repaid upon graduation once the graduate is earning over a certain level”. This is an alarming oversimplification of a very complex situation. Direct experience of the uncertain and precarious existence of students and families with little to fall back on would certainly ‘colour in’ this outline sketch.

Of course, many factors will drive decisions. The idea of ‘not fitting in’ is a well-worn reason but lacks rigorous evidence. A student might not fit in if there is little money to fund a social life with their better-off peers. Working in a bar or restaurant serving fellow students who are out for the evening is also a source of ‘not fitting in’. These are real problems to be overcome. TEFS has observed that the majority of students (64%) are not burdened by part-time jobs (TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). Those with the burden of employment do so against a backdrop of those with more time for study and a social life (TEFS 19th July 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’). Bear in mind that taking out loans for maintenance costs adds a significant long-term debt that those with family support do not need to be so concerned about. Staying close to home to cut down on travel and living costs is also a sensible strategy. Add to that the observation that students who commute also tend to spend more hours in employment and the financial reasons rise up from the morass of data (TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’).

The selective school hypothesis.

There is a danger that the research above leads to the idea that selective grammar schools are the answer. There are those that promote the idea that selective schools (grammar schools) serve to facilitate able students from disadvantaged areas and low-income families. Indeed, for the few plucked out of their community, and bused across town every day to meet their well-off peers, this might be the case. TEFS has generally stayed away from these arguments largely on the grounds that grammar schools are no longer a major force for success in terms of volume. As drivers of inequality, they have been superseded by differences in state schools borne out of the catchments where they are located. Thus post-code is now a defining factor in success for many. 

Not to be deterred, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a case for grammar schools by Iain Mansfield in December 2019 (The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education). Formally a principal official at the Department for Education he was responsible for the design of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). His grasp of the situation is, therefore, a sound one in practical terms. However, his conclusion that “Overall, selective schooling, whether in the form of grammar schools or specialist Maths schools, dramatically increases the likelihood of students in the most disadvantaged two quintiles, or below the median income, progressing to highly-selective universities, including Oxbridge” has met with some resistance. Certainly, it would seem that for the lucky few this may be the case, but it's never that simple.

In response, a team of educational academics set out their counter arguments in a HEPI report in January 2020 with ‘Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer? (Edited by John Furlong and Ingrid Lunt, 23rd January 2020’). This is a collection of essays by eight very experienced academics that challenges the notion that grammar schools help the chances of reaching the elite universities. Also, that the chances of students from low-income families are harmed and radically suggest that schools should not be selective and that universities might be ‘comprehensive’.

HEPI graciously offered Iain Mansfield a contemporaneous right of reply. They might wish they had not. In ‘Iain Mansfield responds to today’s paper on social mobility and grammar schools’ (23rd January 2020) he resorts to academic ‘mudslinging’. He accuses some of the authors of using data that was 'cherry-picked'. Despite noting that there might be “unconscious bias” this does not deter him from using some of the offerings as an example of being “distorted to support the preferred views of the authors”. The invective is mostly aimed at authors Vikki Boliver and Queralt Capsada-Munsech of The University of Durham. In reference to their earlier work in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education from October 2019 entitled ‘Using contextual data to widen access to higher education’ (by Vikki Boliver, Stephen Gorard & Nadia Siddiqui) he makes the accusation that “Boliver, in particular, has a track record of using statistics in questionable ways to support an ideologically-held position”. The paper in question is rigorous and should be treated with some respect even if the idea of contextual admissions to university seems radical. It also has other authors who might not all be in a position to make a defence. Helpfully, an anonymous author at HEPI has made a sensible contribution and overview of the ‘debate’ with ‘Why do so many experts want to end academic selection at 11 but strengthen it at 18?’ (10 January 2020). We can only hope that more rational debate and level heads will prevail.

Nevertheless, the ‘mud-slinging’ is shocking and adds nothing to a debate that surely must continue. I have acted as a senior editor for two mainstream science society journals over many years as a scientist. The publication of such invective is a novel concept and new experience for me. It would not grace the pages of any serious scientific academic journal. If it did, then the perpetrator would surely withdraw and apologise as soon as possible. 

Finally, the arguments and counter arguments are extremely serious in what is a highly divided society. Those at the sharp end of poverty, trying to make choices for their education from a precarious economic platform, find it hard to decide whether or not to jump into an uncertain future. Those with such experiences would be able to offer a better perspective and would not be impressed by some of the contributions to the debate made by others on their behalf.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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