Saturday, 8 January 2011

Private vs. Comprehensive School

University debate was sparked back into life by an interesting statement from Simon Hughes (the man who was very sad he had to raise tuition fees, shame that sadness didn't extend to actually voting against them) who said that universities needed to cut their intake from private schools so that they could better represent society as a whole.

He's 'very sorry' that he lied about tuition fees.

I don't think this should turn in to a class war, people born into the kind of family that can afford to send their children to private school are no more to blame for their abundance of opportunity in life than those born into poorer backgrounds. But there is something wrong with a system, as it stands, that means more than 25% of pupils at Russell Group universities are from private schools despite making up just 7% of the population.

The argument from those universities is that people coming from private schools are achieving better results, which is certainly true, in terms of raw exam scores, they were three times more likely to get an A* than comprehensive school pupils in last years A-Levels. But maybe that just opens up a question on the validity of exam testing.

Perhaps, it isn't the case that private school pupils are more intelligent, but simply that they are better trained to pass exams than their comprehensive school counterparts. Exams test only a very specific and narrow range of knowledge, and some people are naturally more adept at passing exams, even if there actual knowledge isn't as good as others.

This view certainly seems to be backed up by research done for the government, as published by the Sutton Trust. It shows that if you take a private school pupil, and compare there ability at degree level to a comprehensive pupil with similar A-level results, the pupil from the comprehensive school is likely to outperform their private school counterpart. For example, a comprehensive school student with BBB at A-Level will do just as well at degree level as a private school student with grades of ABB or even AAB.

It shows that there needs to be more to university applications than simple exam results, which give only a narrow picture. And in the longer term, perhaps people should be looking into why exactly exam results seem to be such a poor indicator of knowledge in their current format, and whether there is a better alternative. As it stands, the system is giving an unfair advantage to private school students, to the detriment of more able students from comprehensives.

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