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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 March 2007, 01:14 GMT 02:14 UK
How universities narrow schooling
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
It takes guts to be a whistleblower.

This week, one of the country's leading head teachers blew the whistle on secondary schools and university admissions.

School sixth forms, he said, were no longer as "interesting and stimulating" as they were 25 years ago.

Schools were "playing the game" of examination and league table success instead of addressing the "fundamental questions" about what education is about.

Students had lost the breadth of education they deserved.

And all this was largely the fault of university admissions policies.

It was a powerful message, and a brave one since it was delivered directly to an audience of university admissions officers.

It came from the Master of Wellington College, Dr Anthony Seldon, in a talk provocatively entitled, Why A-levels and university requirements are distorting education in schools.

Dr Seldon is an original thinker and innovator and, dare I say it, unusual among independent school head teachers for his willingness to rock the boat.

It would be very easy for him just to stay quiet. He runs a successful school, where students do well from the current examination and university admissions systems.


So why bite the hand that feeds?

The reason, according to Dr Seldon, is that the system is letting down young people.

His arguments are worth repeating.

He believes the university admissions system places far too much emphasis on GCSE and A-level grades, even though those exams are "flawed".

He argues that schools and teachers now coach and prepare students for exams far more intensively than they used to, at the expense of a broader education.

As for coursework, it "encourages dishonesty" and puts too much strain on students.

He calls this "playing the game" and says the pressure on schools is so great that few can hold out against it.

While league tables are part of that pressure, he puts greater blame on the universities for sending out a message that exam grades are "all that matters".

Wrong choices

Since most universities do not interview applicants, the decision process is based on GCSE grades, predicted A-level grades, and the Ucas "personal statement" form.

And even the personal statement has become part of the admissions game.

As Dr Seldon puts it: "hours of sweat from teachers and parents can go into the personal statements".

They are, of course, meant to be the applicant's own work.

The result, from a head teacher's perspective, is that universities often select the wrong applicants.

"I have seen the most extraordinarily capricious judgements," he said, with worthy candidates receiving hurtful rejections while "others who have done nothing for anyone else and made minimal effort in class are getting great offers."

So, what is to be done about it? One of Dr Seldon's several suggestions is a return to interviewing candidates.

Application form

Face-to-face encounters with experienced and trained admissions tutors would make it harder for students to hide behind grades that may owe more to cramming and assisted coursework than innate ability and personal effort.

Interviews would also ensure that students had to prove some of the claims made in their personal statements.

Dr Seldon would also like changes to the Ucas application forms so they give less emphasis to "frankly glib aspirational statements" and more to what students have actually done.

This might include a number of boxes to cover a range of skills and qualities - language, interpersonal, physical, cultural, service to others and emotional development - that demonstrate a young person's breadth of personal and social development not just an ability to jump through hoops.

If universities showed that they really cared about the breadth of a student's development this would be "an amazing tonic for schools", he concludes.

In fairness to the universities, there are practical problems with some of this.

The sheer volume of applications to most universities makes interviewing everyone a daunting task.

There are also concerns that interviewing can be discriminatory, with admissions tutors allowing personal prejudices to cloud judgements.

Also some students will be better coached and prepared for interviews than others.

Case for reform

However, Dr Seldon has done a great service by opening up the debate about university admissions and taking it away from the current, often sterile debate about social engineering.

Universities have always had a huge downwards pressure on school education.

University staff probably value the same qualities of breadth and independence that Dr Seldon values in students.

But if the current admissions and examination system is narrowing education in schools, and encouraging dishonesty and plagiarism, then a new effort needs to be made to find ways of overcoming the practical problems that block reform.

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