Wednesday 21 December 2005

A level playing field.

Natalie the Wise thinks that this is a bad thing:

Oxford University is considering changes to its admissions system as figures today showed the proportion of state school students this year has fallen.

The proposals, from a working party, would drastically reduce the role of the colleges in picking applicants and could prove controversial. Today's admissions statistics suggest Oxford is failing to widen access and still gets almost 44% of its intake from private schools.

Now, we all know that the Government are putting pressure on Oxbridge to let in more pupils from state schools, and that, the standard of a state education being what it is, the only way they'll ever take in as many state-educated students as the government want them to is by dropping their admissions standards. I'm not convinced that this is necessarily as bad a thing as some make out: Oxbridge are, I would have thought, so extremely good at teaching that they should be able to succeed with slightly less excellent students than they're used to. The only students likely to want to go to Oxbridge are the same ones likely to do well there. And, as long as the universities want to take money from all taxpayers via the Government, they can provide a service to all taxpayers according to the Government's rules. Fair's fair.

But all of that is beside the point. This report is in The Guardian, and, like all newspapers, they write according to their agenda. Note how those opening two paragraphs are constructed: the first contains two not-necessarily-related facts strung together with the word "as"; the second contains two not-necessarily-related sentences. There is nothing there to say that this working party who are considering changes to Oxford's admission system are doing so in order to get more state-school pupils in; in fact, there is nothing anywhere in the whole article that says so — and I would've thought that, if that were the working party's purpose, The Guardian would gleefully mention it. No, what the working party are trying to do is quite different to what The Guardian and the Government want them to do:

The report added: "It is supported by anecdotal evidence from schools — when they sometimes tell us that a candidate for a particular subject whom they regard as their most able fails to get a place at one college, whilst a candidate whom they regard as less able gets a place at another college. ..."

... his report admitted that many people inside and outside the university felt it still fell short of ensuring the very best who applied to Oxford were admitted, irrespective of college choice.

In other words, the problem, as Oxford sees it, is that they're failing to get some of the best students. Not some of the poorest, not some of the most disadvantaged, not some of the most working-class; some of the best.

"Though there is no systematic evidence that the college admissions system actually deters candidates from applying, feedback from pupils at schools with limited Oxford connections — most often in the non-selective maintained sector — suggests that they find our admissions arrangements confusing and opaque, particularly when making a choice of college."

It's tempting to place too much emphasis on that phrase "in the non-selective maintained sector", but look at what they're really saying here: they want to make sure that students get in based purely on their ability and not on their knowledge of how to play Oxford's admission system. Doing this will broaden access not only to a lot of state schools but also to those private schools that don't have connections with Oxford — soon to include a bunch of cut-price private schools, if that market expands as it's predicted to — and making access easier to pupils from those schools will be total anathema to The Guardian.

Onto the end of this report, which details, effectively, tentative moves by Oxford to stop the old-boys network getting less able students in, The Guardian stick this paragraph:

Among students who applied in October 2004 for entry in October this year the proportion of state school pupils admitted fell from 47.8% to 46.4%, reflecting a fall in applications from the maintained sector.

This is probably true, but has almost nothing to do with the rest of the article. It's spin. Ignore it.

Yes, the Government are trying to force Oxford to accept state-school students who probably aren't good enough to succeed there. Yes, Oxford may well give in to that pressure, sooner or later. But this news is not that event. This news is good news.

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