Recently, Radio FiveLive, forgetting to say for just a few minutes that they are the official World Cup Radio Station, did a special report on the 'problems' of widening participation strategies at university level. Part of the programme focused on talking to some incredibly smart teenagers who had failed to get interviews/offers at university for courses which, by most standards, are generally accepted to be significantly oversubscribed in terms of applicants. Their beef was that, having been predicted straight "A-triple-stars" (or whatever this week's grading system is) and perhaps even having got excellent work experience, they found that places had been "given away" to students who were predicted far worse grades, offered places requiring lower grades, and who lacked their experience.
"This is outrageous" shrieked their parents; "we've struggled to send our child to a good school, they've always wanted to be a vet/doctor and this is how all their hard work gets rewarded!" Meanwhile in the report, other, more multi-lingual and multi-regional-accented, teenagers fought to develop their articulacy expressing how brilliant it was to get a chance to do such a degree despite not having spent their entire life working towards the right qualifications for the right university for this particular course.
Hmmm. Doesn't seem very fair does it?
Let's clear up two key problems in the argument FiveLive presented.
1. if it wasn't for these pesky upstarts with less wonderful predicted A levels, the lovely hardworking teenagers would be guaranteed their places.
Sorry, but there aren't enough places even if NONE of the "I've been encouraged through widening participation strategies" pupils got anywhere near applying let alone being offered places.
2. certain children were being given an unfair advantage in being offered places with lower predicted grades and offers requiring less perfect achieved grades
PROBLEMATIC AS WELL AS WRONG.
There are two issues at stake here. One is to do with the idea of unfairness and lower grades. Is it fair that some students, having been 'lucky' enough to have families who recognise and can act upon giving their children chances to go to good schools (I use the terms advisedly since I know all too many who went to 'good schools' and had the most miserable and destructive experience imaginable because of the competitive ambition and expectations demanded of them) should be 'penalised' for their success?
Well it depends partly on how you see the penalties that are already stacked up against other students: those whose families are unable or unwilling or inexperienced at being able to get their children out of attending less good schools; those who have no family experience of higher education and perhaps would struggle to recognise the value of continued education. One could make an argument that their potential or even actual lower grades have added value - that because things are much harder for them to do well at all, that their achievements should count higher.
Ouch. I know what some of you are thinking, so let's mention the phrase that's no doubt in some readers minds: social engineering.
It seems so simple for some to get indignant about the concept of recognising inequalities and trying to do something to change the impact of those inequalities. Because of course all that is required is harder work. And then they would get the same grades and could properly and fairly compete for the limited places.
Except that this isn't really the case is it? It's like simplistically claiming that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. Hmmm. Your job is a shit shoveller. Chances are that despite working long exhausting hours, your chances of some great reward are slender.
Yes, it is undoubtedly tough to see your motivated hard-working offspring fail to get what they feel they deserve. But it is hardly as if students are being told they can get absolutely rubbish grades to be offered interviews and places ahead of all the predicted-to-be-high achieving students. The difference in their PREDICTIONS (a key point I will come back to shortly) is often less than a couple of overall grades (say three Bs rather than ABB or AAB). Moreover, it was revealing that even amongst the carefully selected students on the programme complaining about not being given a chance despite their hard work and predicted successful grades, all was not lost. Indeed, one young man said that after taking a year out he had since reapplied and HAD been offered a place. Additionally, when he had asked for feedback about why he had not been offered interviews or a place, he was told that his personal statement was flawed. (He actually complained about how short the word limit was to be able to explain and cover all his amazing experience and commitment to doing the course. Hah. Welcome to the world of having to write succinctly, of making careful choices in what you include and what you prioritise. Skills that usually better educated students are well taught in but clearly this one hadn't grasped. There is actually more to getting a place than just good predicted grades).
Which brings me to the second issue within the debate about the 'unfair advantage' in offering places for 'lower predicted grades'.
I have always held that students applying to university before their results is utterly flawed and generally nonsensical. How many people do you know - you may be one yourself - who had great predicted grades and then flunked the entire thing. Cloud did. So did someone else I know. The reasons for flunking are pretty irrelevant, but flunking happens. Illness, a death in the family, just being stoned. Predicted grades are often useless in ascertaining what someone actually achieves in terms of grades.
And that is before we even get to the matter of how helpful A level grades are as an indicator of university level success or even of being inspired by university education (these may not be the same thing). Given that actually many older universities have relatively small proportions of non-traditional A-level route students, for example, it is interesting that still so many can find it difficult to adjust to university life and the requirements of degree-level education. This DESPITE all the perceived preparation of 'good schools' and high A levels. Predicted or even achieved A level grades also do not necessarily tell you much about how wonderful you will be at the job (which is where the topic of work experience etc DOES present some problems but more on that later).
Anyway, my ill-made point is this. Even discounting that for some achieving an excellent set of A-level grades is made easier by their circumstances, the point is that university places are (pre-clearing) NOT offered on actual grades but predicted ones. Less good schools unfortunately often deflate predicted grades, as much as better schools often inflate. It's an expectation thing. So why wouldn't other issues - why SHOULDN'T other issues - count? Potential, for example?
Arguably, where students have not JUST been working to get high predictions (and perhaps achieve those predictions) AND have also got excellent experience, that should clearly count for something, as evidence of potential. But there can be all sorts of reasons why obtaining such experience might also be as shaped by circumstances beyond the control of the student (e.g. not being bought up on a farm) that again have nothing to do with the actual potential and talent a young person may have to contribute to a degree subject and ultimately perhaps the profession. And as the example of the young man from the programme showed, just getting the experience and the high predicted grades does not in itself mean a perfect application: you can still end up screwing up the personal statement.
Now I'm not prepared to go so far as to say that all Widening Participation strategies are good and well thought through. But rarely is it the case that ALL places on a course are set aside for students targeted through Widening Participation - it's usually just a proportion (though thankfully most places have realised that it does have to a reasonable proportion if you're not just going to replicate social division with token non-traditional entrants). And what often lets down Widening Participation is what happens when the students walk through the door of the institution. Transition is also vital. Some universities have received criticism for WP because, looking at some statistics, completion and success can still be hard for students coming through non-standard routes or from non-traditional backgrounds. But let's just take a simple example like obtaining work experience in vacation-time: it is not unreasonable to see that for students from economically more secure backgrounds, for those prepared/able to economically support their offspring through education, obtaining unpaid work experience is going to be much easier. Whilst such work experience might not be deemed essential in terms of university insisting or providing these opportunities - it may be 'optional' - for some it is going to be much harder to take up these valuable 'optional ' opportunities than for others. Does that make those less financially able to take these chances less capable than their counter-parts? I doubt it? So just getting students in through the front door and feeling that the Widening Participation job is done and from now it IS the mythical level playing field is farcical.
I'm going to duck and cover now because I suspect I will just find it easier to slip back into popular and high culture discussions. Rant partially over, but I will be returning to related issues (hopefully before the end of the week) regarding dyslexia.