National Grammar Schools Association
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Failed-school follies

18th August 2002 - The Sunday Times

The law of unintended consequences is the most persuasive of all laws in policy making. It has rarely been more clearly illustrated than in the mess that is being created by the government’s drive to increase the number of state school pupils at university. The government has two main, interlinked, educational obsessions. First, since education is by far the most important means of escaping poverty, it wants to increase the standard state schools, especially those with preponderance of poor pupils. Second, it wants to stop the flight of middle-class parents away from state to independent schools. Every poll on the subject shows that an overwhelming majority of parents would prefer to send their children to an independent school.

Those are worthwhile goals. But the law of unintended consequences means that the government’s policies, and the admission criteria now being adopted by universities to fall in line with them, are making the situation worse. For years it has been a truism that pupils in poorly performing schools are denied a fair crack of the educational whip. Some state school pupils lose out because their schools are not up to the job. Since pupils at independent schools tend to be stretched to the full, their A-levels are a pretty accurate of their ability. Results at some state schools, however, often reflect little more than the standard of the school. That is plainly unfair, as well as being a massive waste of talent.

But the measures now being taken in response merely compound the problem. As we report today, some of the country’s top universities are offering places to state school pupils with A-level results at least two grades below those gained by independent schools. They are introducing quotas designed to raise the proportion of state school children. Indeed, the Higher Education Funding Council proposes to give extra funding to universities not merely for reaching a given proportion of state school students, which in itself can lead to inequity, but specifically to reward those admitting students with poor qualifications. It will thus enshrine in admissions procedures the entirely subjective notion that, for instance, a C grade from a bad state school is better than an A grade from an independent school.

The consequences of this go far beyond the personal unfairness of a pupil who has three As being beaten for a place by one with three Cs. The government’s drive to keep middle-class parents within the state system should, in any rational world, be based on improving the standard of state schools. Few parents want to pay twice for their child’s education – once through taxes and once school fees. But although the government, whose funding criteria shape the universities’ behaviour, says all the right things about “tough on failure”, its policies have a rather different impact. The point of paying for a private education is to enable a child to get the best possible grades; if good grades achieved at independent schools are treated as inferior to poorer grades achieved at state schools, it would be counter-productive to go private. Thus, instead of welcoming back thousands of parents because state schools have improved, the effect of the government’s policies is to force them back into the state system because grades achieved at private schools no longer count.

Paradoxically, state school pupils will also suffer. The only way to increase standards is to expose the myth that poverty is an excuse for failure. Formally accepting that some schools and pupils cannot be expected to do as well as others is a return to the educational dogma that has ruined our schools for the past 40 years.

A policy designed to compensate state school children for the failings of the their schools thus fatally undermines the drive towards higher standards. Labour’s motives may be worthy, but the impact of the law of unintended consequences means that instead of increasing opportunity, it is starting to infect universities with the same poor school standards that caused the problem in the first place.