Should Head Teachers Be the Gatekeepers of Oxbridge and the LSE?
As recent articles in the national press have highlighted, parents are becoming increasingly demanding, even to the point of litigation.This trend has been linked to the presence of overseas students and their oligarchical parents in our private schools, but the truth is that in the last two decades an increasingly competitive society and a decline in deference to teachers have changed the outlook of British families as well. In no area are parents more demanding than in their children’s applications to higher education: sometimes they even expect schools to provide unrealistic references and grade predictions, both of which need to be very high if an application to an elite university is to be successful. However, it would be unjust to blame the parents for the pressure that schools face when recommending students for universities. It is genuinely the case that the future of the young person is to a large extent in the hands of the school, and this, regardless of the input from parents, is in itself a tremendous responsibility.
At Ashbourne College we acknowledge that we have fundamental duties to our students and to our own professional integrity. Ashbourne is committed to a student-first policy: within reason we will do whatever is in our power to ensure that students succeed. However, we also have a duty to behave with integrity in order to ensure that Ashbourne’s good name is reinforced and never compromised. These aims are of course complementary since unrealistic recommendations would diminish the value of our references as a whole.
It is one of our most important duties to ensure that each student applies to a university or degree course that is appropriate to their ability and preparation. If a student has not prepared properly, as would be indicated by underperformance in examinations and/or assignments, we will not recommend them. Of course potential is important and in general if a student shows ambition and commitment we will be as optimistic as we reasonably can when predicting grades.
In general it is not worth applying to Oxbridge unless the student is likely to obtain all grade As with at least one A* grade (although humanities departments at Oxford do not make a distinction between A and A* when making offers). This must be seen in the context of recent admission statistics: in 2012 80+% of students entering Cambridge had 4 or more A* grades at A level, while in Oxford the figure was 70+ %. However, even if a student is likely to obtain the highest grades, we will still not recommend them for Oxbridge unless they have the necessary confidence and flair in order to cope with the interview procedure. They must also have undertaken appropriate research into their proposed course, such as project work and reading outside the syllabus.
The same policy concerning grades and research applies to applications for institutions such as Imperial College, UCL and LSE, which are consistently ranked among the top ten universities in the world.
Although we are scrupulous in our references, we are frustrated by the obtuseness of the application procedures of some of Britain’s elite universities. Since they all reject a considerable number of students who have been predicted extremely high A Level grades, we believe that they should all implement their own tests in order to assess applications fairly. Otherwise, an unfair degree of pressure is put on school staff, who not only have to consider the future of their students when writing references but also have to phrase their recommendations in a way that enables universities to make fine distinctions between competing candidates of high calibre.
At the moment Oxford University has admissions tests that are used for most subjects in the process by which students are short-listed for interview. However, this is not generally the case with Cambridge University, while LSE does not arrange tests for its applicants (except in particular circumstances such as mature students on access courses). It is our submission that this is unjustifiable, in particular for exceptionally competitive degree courses such as Economics. We have noticed that excellent applicants often do not obtain offers for such courses, no doubt after close consideration by the university of previous exam results, subject combinations, personal statements and so forth. Nonetheless, given the generally high standard of the applicants, some other form of assessment by the university is needed in order to ensure that acceptance and rejection decisions are never arbitrary.
As principals, head teachers and other senior staff at schools, we are content to stand at the gates of our nation’s august universities, verifying the academic credentials of students, their dedication and intellectual curiosity. However, we do believe that we should expect a similar level of interaction and diligence from these institutions themselves.