PUPILS from private schools generally gain better examination results than those at state schools.
This performance advantage makes it essential that universities look beyond raw exam grades if the brightest potential students are to gain access to the most prestigious degree courses. The personal statement written by applicants to universities is supposed to make the process fairer by providing additional background information. New research by the Sutton Trust, however, shows that, far from ironing out inequality, personal statements can entrench it.
Two examples typify the gulf in experience between potential students. One lists a glittering array of work placements with a designer, a brokerage firm, the BBC and a five-star hotel; the other cites a visit to a chocolate factory and managing the school lockers. This points to a difference in background rather than academic potential but, with the best will in the world, it poses a genuine dilemma for any admissions board that must decide which applicant will gain more from a university place.
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Dr Steven Jones of Manchester University, who carried out the research, described personal statements as "an excuse to highlight past advantages". Steps must be taken to ensure universities can judge applicants according to the academic and extra-curricular opportunities available to them but other measures will be required to produce an even playing field. Bright pupils from non-privileged backgrounds usually lack the contacts to gain appropriate work experience or the knowledge to articulate convincingly why they want to study their chosen subjects. Pilot schemes, using graduates from disadvantaged areas to visit schools to inspire the next generation, have begun to address this. But companies and professional bodies should also help in expanding internships so that aspiring lawyers, doctors or engineers can gain some insight into their chosen profession.
The universities, however, must be more proactive. In response to criticism that it admitted only 14 students from the most deprived areas last year, St Andrews said few students from such areas gained the minimum entrance qualifications and those admitted with lower grades tended to drop out. That is a measure of how much more needs to be done. Several Scottish universities are tackling inequality by running summer schools and providing additional tuition to first-year students with lower entrance grades. Much more could be achieved if steps were taken to level the playing field at an earlier stage. That has been recognised by Dundee University in providing teaching for Advanced Highers to pupils whose schools do not offer such courses. This is an example others should follow but schools should also do more to ensure their most able pupils are not short-changed. Grouping together to provide courses might be one way forward. Some young people will always be more privileged than others but there is evidence that those who start off at a disadvantage do as well or better in their degree results. They must have the opportunity to do so.