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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
Call for state school talent scouts
pupils in class
Bright but poor students are being overlooked
The university admissions process in the UK needs urgent reform to end "the wastage of talent" of students from poor backgrounds, says an educational trust.

Adding to the ongoing debate over university admissions, the Sutton Trust recommends that each of the top institutions should have an action plan to recruit more poorer students from state schools.

girls putting hands up
State school students may need pushing forward
A way of achieving this would be to employ "talent spotters" to seek out brighter pupils, it says.

In response, the government says it will ensure all universities have "professional recruitment and selection systems".

The trust also recommends that A-level results should be available before university admissions decisions are made - instead of the present system of conditional offers based on predicted grades.

Improving access

The trust, founded by philanthropist Peter Lampl, supports various initiatives aimed at widening access to the best universities.

The field from which the country recruits its future elite turns out to be extraordinarily narrow

Sutton Trust report
But it says that, "given the scale of the problem", more must be done.

It identifies 13 "top" universities on the basis of newspaper league tables: Cambridge, Imperial College London, Oxford, the LSE, University College London, York, Warwick, Bristol, Nottingham, St Andrews, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Durham.

It has cross-matched these with the figures for admissions published last November by the higher education funding councils as part of their first UK university performance tables.

Those tables included "benchmarks" - targets universities should meet, based on students' entry qualifications and the subjects they teach.

Comparing the actual entry statistics with the benchmarks shows the hill universities have to climb:

  • children from independent schools account for 39% of the entry, compared with a benchmark of 28%
  • children from the less affluent social classes account for half the school population but only 13% of the universities' intake - benchmark: 17%
  • children who live in poor areas are 33% of school pupils but 0.9% of the university entry - the benchmark would be 1.1%
  • the chances of getting into a top university is 25 times greater for someone from an independent school than from a lower social class or poor area - almost double what it should be
The trust says independent school students have a considerable advantage - above their level of achievement - in getting into leading universities.

"The field from which the country recruits its future elite turns out to be extraordinarily narrow," it says.

Reform needed

The trust says too few of the suitably qualified but less affluent students apply to the top universities, and there are "inadequacies", as it puts it, in the universities' admissions systems.

pupil writing at desk
Students might not realise they are top university material
But it starts in school. Schools with a strong tradition of sending students to top universities identify potential candidates and encourage them to apply for the right courses.

The universities receiving the applications know they are from a reliable source and the predicted A-level grades are likely to be accurate.

"Applicants from many comprehensives often do not know or think they are top university material and do not have access to the same information and contacts with these institutions," the trust's report says.

Robert Sandford, a first year undergraduate at Durham, said he thought his chance of getting in was boosted by coming from a grammar school with a reputation for being honest with grade predictions.

"Moreover, there were smaller class sizes. My sixth form tutor spent a lot of time with me on my personal statement which I am convinced is what won me the place at Durham university," he said.

He complained that his achievement - of which he and his family were proud - was being "cheapened by a bunch of politicians trying to draw attention away from their lack of achievement".

Harvard example

The trust - unlike the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott - does not blame the top universities, which it says are well aware of the problem and are addressing it.

But it says they usually have two or three full-time admissions staff and a number of part-timers to handle an average annual intake of 2,000 students.

"Contrast this with Harvard where the admissions department has 50 people working full time to admit 1,650 students per year."

A Bristol University study had shown that a student from a below-average school could be accepted with lower A-level grades and still get a degree as good as, or better than, students from high-performing schools.

Lower expectations

  • Graduates who went to state schools before university are less ambitious than those who went to private schools, a survey suggests.

    Those who went to private schools are much more likely to apply for jobs in management consultancy, investment banking and law.

    Former state school pupils aim for accountancy, teaching, engineering and information technology positions.

    Market research company High Fliers interviewed 10,102 people who graduated in 1998.

    Both sets of graduates expected to start work on about £15,000-a-year, but those from private schools expected to be earning £31,000 within five years, while those from state schools thought they would be earning £27,400 by then.

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    See also:

    04 Jun 00 | UK Politics
    Labour widens attack on elitism
    02 Jun 00 | UK Politics
    Prescott re-ignites universities row
    10 May 00 | Unions 2000
    Universities 'failing the poor'
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