Friday, December 10, 2004

What won't make the White Paper

Call me a cynic if you must, but one aspect of the Tomlinson report that most definitely will not make the Education White Paper when it is released in the New Year is the proposal to introduce A+ and A++ grades at A-Level. I may well be wrong, but at the time of the A-Level marking fiasco in 2002 (one of the most disgraceful and under-reported whitewashes of the current Labour government), when it became clear that Labour's "curriculum 2000" proposals had not achieved anything like the end that they were supposed to, it was mooted that an A* grade should be introduced at A-Level for the top 5% in every subject.

Why then, was this proposal later scrapped? Because it was found out that if such a move was to be introduced, it would favour university applicants from private schools disproportionately. A new study has shown that if A+ and A++ grades were to be introduced, at each higher grade there would be a higher percentage of private school pupils. Such facts are of course hard for the Government to deal with. They would rather attack Oxbridge for being 'elitist' rather than embracing the fact that we have two academic institutions in the top 10 in the world, and that they have no interest in taking anyone other than the brightest and best students to teach. This is why you will so commonly see the statistic quoted that only 7% of pupils go to independent schools - in fact, at sixth form, the proportion is nearer 20%, and of the A grades awarded at A-Level, about 56%, according to the report above, go to private school candidates.

The problems of the education system cannot be masked by targeting university admissions to make it seem as if state school education is getting better. Of course, this is the entire rationale behind government policy on higher education. Why do the government want 50% of students going to university? Because, in this country, going to university carries with it an impression of having achieved a high academic standard. Ergo more students going to university means that the system is educating our children better. Similarly, if government pressure can 'encourage' Oxbridge to take more state school students, it will give the impression that the state school system is performing better. Is anyone really suggesting that the almost linear improvement in the percentage of state school candidates going to Oxbridge has a strong grounding in the performance of the state sector?

The government consistently tries to massage figures to launch an attack on private schooling and to embark upon a massive "social engineering" programme. To do this, it ignores one basic but unpalatable fact - quite a lot of the best candidates for university entry go to private schools. Another fact - the universities will take the best candidates regardless of their social background. The government should concentrate its efforts on genuinely trying to improve state schools, rather than their unimpressive and unconvincing targeting of private schools. Most parents would not send their kids to private school if the local state school was good enough. The government should introduce the higher grades as a further differential between top candidates, and then focus on how they can get more state school candidates reaching that standard.