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Post  Panda on Tue 27 Nov - 7:28

Poor pupils 'being set up to fail', top university warns

Forcing universities to admit rising numbers of teenagers with lower entry grades risks setting them up to “fail”, one of Britain's most prestigious institutions has warned.

It was claimed that problems with children’s upbringing and schooling were to blame for a lack of working-class students claiming places at the country’s elite universities Photo: ALAMY

By Simon Johnson and Graeme Paton

10:00PM GMT 26 Nov 2012


In an unprecedented intervention, St Andrews University said it was “utterly dishonest” to dumb down admissions requirements to create a more socially-balanced student body.

Problems with children’s upbringing and schooling were to blame for a lack of working-class students claiming places at the country’s elite universities, it was claimed.

Stephen Magee, St Andrews’ vice-principal with responsibility for admissions, said that politicians could not continue to “lay responsibility for widening access solely at the door of universities”.

It represents the strongest criticism yet levelled by an individual university towards policies designed to force institutions to boost access to students from the poorest families.

SNP ministers in Edinburgh are demanding that Scottish universities sign new “outcome agreements” that will see them given public funding on the condition they agree to “widen access”.

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It reflects a similar process in England where universities have been forced to draw up targets to boost the number of disadvantaged students admitted each year in return for retaining the power to charge up to £9,000 in tuition fees.

Prof Les Ebdon, head of the Government’s Office for Fair Access, has told the most sought-after universities to set the most “stretching” targets.

Speaking at a conference in London on Monday, he said the overall number of poor pupils admitted into higher education had increased by a third over the last decade but insisted numbers had failed to rise at the most prestigious institutions.

Data published earlier this year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that more than half of top universities recruited fewer pupils from the very poorest families in 2010/11. Two-thirds of institutions belonging to the elite Russell Group also recruited proportionally fewer state school students.

Prof Ebdon has previously suggested that universities can use “contextual data” – information on applicants’ family background and school performance – to make lower grade offers to disadvantaged applicants.

St Andrews, whose alumni include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has faced fierce criticism north of the border for admitting only 14 children from the poorest backgrounds last year.

In a statement published on Tuesday, Mr Magee promised to redouble its efforts to accept more, but warned it faces a “considerable and continuing challenge” because so few school leavers in deprived areas are achieving even the most basic entry grades for a degree course.

“We have a choice – we can continue to beat up our leading universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation,” he said.

“We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest.”

He said the problem could only be solved with a “concerted effort” to improve health, employment and housing as well as fostering a “culture of attainment” at all levels of education.

Mr Magee pointed to official figures showing only 220 children in the poorest communities north of the border last year achieved three As in their Higher exams, the Scottish equivalent of A-levels.

Of these, 55 applied to St Andrews and the university made offers to 34. However, only 14 accepted.

St Andrews also pointed out that competition for places is so fierce it has had to reject wealthier children who have achieved five good grades at school.

The SNP government in Scotland has threatened to introduce targets backed up by heavy fines if universities fail to make sufficient progress aimed at widening access

Under its deal, St Andrews has agreed next year to increase by 45 per cent the number of applicants admitted from the 20 per cent of poorest areas. However, this is the equivalent of only six more students.

Liz Smith, Scottish Tory education spokesman, said: “The message from St Andrews is clear… The real focus of the policy should be on raising standards and aspiration in every school.”

Addressing the Westminster Education Forum in London on Monday, Prof Ebdon said that universities in England were already “responding well” to OFFA’s reforms by “reaching out” to poor students.

But he insisted that the “challenge is with regard to the most selective universities”.

Prof Ebdon, former vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, said that students from the richest 20 per cent of households were seven times more likely to attend a top university than teenagers from the poorest 40 per cent.

“There are a multitude of reasons which contribute to this but it is clearly a serious challenge that we have to face,” he said.

OFFA has the power to fine institutions in England £500,000 or ban them from levying tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year – a potentially crippling sanction.

He said the watchdog had never used the powers and would seek to resolve stand-offs over admission targets “by negotiation”.

But he added: “I think the only circumstance… in which we would fine an institution is if they have made a promise to students which they did not fulfil. It does seem to me that part of the role of OFFA as regulator is to protect the interests of students.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have already taken action to ensure access to university is based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay by abolishing tuition fees which is delivering record numbers of students in higher education.

"We are now building on this by introducing a new system of student support that will ensure the most vulnerable students receive an income of at least £7,250 and all students can apply for increased student loans.

"We are also investing in the early years to improve the life chances of our children."

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Post  Panda on Fri 30 Nov - 8:15

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  1. Schools 'cynically' entering pupils for extra English exams

Teenagers are being entered for two separate English qualifications at the same time in an attempt to boost schools’ league table rankings, it has emerged.

Pupils at hundreds of state schools are sitting two different GCSE exams in English to boost their grades. Photo: PA

By Graeme Paton, Education Editor

6:00AM GMT 30 Nov 2012


Hundreds of schools are forcing pupils to sit GCSEs and alternative International GCSEs at the end of secondary education to improve their grades, it was revealed.

In many cases, schools are able to wait for the results and then use the best grade in performance tables.

The strategy is being promoted by a group called the Performance in Excellence Club (PiXL) which aims to dramatically improve GCSE results among its members.

According to the Times Educational Supplement, around 400 secondaries are part of the club, paying £3,500 a year to receive advice and tips on how to boost grades

But the tactic of entering pupils for multiple exams has been branded “cynical” by the Department for Education.

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It comes amid growing fears over the corrosive effect of the exams system on pupils’ education.

Earlier this month, Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, warned that rising numbers of textbooks and study guides employed in schools were prioritising “exam preparation” over improving pupils’ understanding of key subjects.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told the TES: “Our students are already over-examined, so to double enter them to improve your position in league tables is disappointing, and reduces the amount of teaching and learning time a child receives.”

A spokeswoman for the DfE said: “This is clearly not in the best interests of pupils. Schools must only enter students for the qualifications that are right for them, not for the cynical reasons this suggests.”

The International GCSE was created by exam boards as an alternative to normal GCSEs to be used overseas and in private schools. It has been seen as a tougher qualification, with less reliance on coursework and greater use of end-of-year exams.

Ministers announced in 2010 that the IGCSE could count towards league tables for state schools.

PiXL said that around 80 per cent of its member schools were entering some of their students for both IGCSEs and regular GCSEs.

Sir John Rowling, a former head teacher and chair of PiXL, insisted the move had helped pupils improve their grades and led to a boost in school league table positions.

“Most heads thought the IGCSE was just for independent schools and that it didn’t count towards league tables, but we have studied it very carefully and we’ve found it can be very appropriate for some state school students,” he said.

He added that the IGCSE was “not instead of another exam, it is alongside – we mix and match”.

Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon has seen the proportion of its students achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths rise from 26 per cent to 66 per cent in just three years since joining the PiXL Club.

Dan Morrow, head of the secondary phase at Shirley Park, said his school had entered students for both English exams for the first time this year to stretch the most able.

Pupils did both exams to help “ensure they didn’t miss out on a qualification”, he said.

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