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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Aptitude tests interest Blunkett
peter lampl and david blunkett
Philanthropist Peter Lampl has the ear of the education secretary
The government is considering US-style aptitude tests for sixth formers to try to ensure that more young people from state schools get into the top universities.

By BBC Education Correspondent, Sue Littlemore

Early summer and an ideal evening for a party at an Oxford college.

Among the guests are David Blunkett and Peter Lampl - multi-millionaire champion of bright underprivileged students.


We don't want to be selecting them on an ability which is basically taught in the schools

Oxford researcher Jane Mellanby
As these two mingle and chat they are working on a revolution. They plan to overturn a tradition which has lasted for years.

"If you look at entry to our leading universities there are less kids now from state school and disadvantaged backgrounds than there were 20 or 30 years ago. I think that's a shocking waste of talent," said Peter Lampl.

One possibility he is exploring through his charity, the Sutton Trust, is using American SATs - scholastic aptitude tests.

Poor schools

"What they've found in the States is that there are kids in poor state schools who are clearly underperforming because they are not in very good schools but they can do very well on the SATs and they are able to identify these kids in that way and also use it as part of selection.

"So we're hoping that we're going to find some kids who may not be getting top grades at A-level but do very well on the SAT."

According to the cliché, Oxford is "a sweet city with its dreaming spires", but for many youngsters the university's image is much less romantic - one sixth former told me he thought of Oxford as a place with "long corridors and monastery-type buildings".

Peter Lampl is buying dinner at the college. His guests are bright sixth formers from state schools - invited because they probably would never have dreamt of applying to Oxford.

It is all part of a university summer school funded by the Sutton Trust.

Mr Lampl believes passionately that more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds ought to be getting into our best universities - but, he says, it will never happen while A-level results are the main way of being selected.

He has found an important ally in the secretary of state. David Blunkett agrees that A-level results are not always a reliable measure of potential.

shiwli begum
Shiwli Begum: Disadvantaged
Eighteen-year-old Shiwli Begum took an aptitude test this year as part of the Lampl experiment.

Her school in Walsall in the West Midlands serves a mainly working class community. It gets results which are below average.

Her head teacher at Joseph Leckie School, Keith Whittlestone, agreed to try out aptitude tests because he believes they might identify pupils who are being held back by their circumstances.

"An aptitude test would be a good idea because it does not rely on the quality of teaching, it does not rely on the number of students in the group, it does not rely upon any coaching and extra sessions or private tutorials that may or may not have been available," he said.

Keith Whittlestone
Keith Whittlestone: "A good idea"
"It cuts across all of those things and gives a truer, fairer indication of a young person's potential to go on to higher education."

Shiwli Begum believes she could expect higher grades have she had been able to go to a private school.

"My parents would have a different view of life, better expectations of me, which would make me more confident to compete with others and go to an elite university such as Cambridge and Oxford," she said.

Oxford University is keen to use some sort of "test for potential" as part of the admissions process.

One of the university's senior psychologists, Jane Mellanby, has been asked to design one.

jane mellanby
Dr Jane Mellanby: Seeking inate aptitude
Last year she tried it out on 150 Oxford applicants. It involved answering questions based on a magazine article.

"What was important is that, unlike the old entrance examinations Oxford used to have, the people didn't have to write an essay, we asked them to write short notes," she said.

"That's because although essay writing is a very important skill it's one we try to teach, and it's one which there's more time in independent schools for the young to be taught.

"So we don't want to be selecting them on an ability which is basically taught in the schools."

Results so far show that although the Oxford applicants from state schools had worse GCSE results than those from independent schools, in Jane Mellanby's test both groups scored equally well.

"It suggests that we're looking at something more closely related to the general ability of these pupils and hence their potential," she concludes.

david blunkett
Davd Blunkett: Keen to evaluate trial results
David Blunkett is looking at practical ways to improve access - including aptitude tests.

"We've been interested since we've seen similar tests applied in the United States," he said.

The research evidence that Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust have sponsored will not be through until the autumn. Mr Blunkett says he wants to evaluate that to see what role it might play.

"In the intermediate period before we are able to transform education in every part of the country and every neighbourhood it will be to ascertain the aptitude, the ability of youngsters who may well have experienced teaching during their present school years which has not brought out the excellence and the ability to reach the highest standards.

"We do know - and it's simply accepted now by everyone - that there are centres of excellence in our schooling system that are able to get able, but not highly intelligent students to achieve very well whilst there are other institutions that are not yet in a position to help the most highly able to excel in examinations.

"We don't want to exaggerate that - but we want to ensure that people who have ability are able to demonstrate whatever their background and whatever the quality of teaching."

Does he think aptitude tests can help achieve that?

"I think they can play a part."

Sceptical

But Dr Steve Blinkhorn, who designs tests for recruiting staff - from ambassadors to bricklayers - insists there is no such thing as a test for raw talent.

steve blinkhorn
Steve Blinkhorn: "It's nonsense"
"The sorts of aptitude tests being proposed are not independent of school achievement, they're not independent of culture, they're not independent of experience and they can be coached to. In other words people can be trained to do better at them," he said.

"There's no reason to suppose that these particular tests are any more culture-free than the range of aptitude and ability and attainment tests that have been used for very many years.

"The idea that you could have a catch-all aptitude test that is equally good for predicting who is going to read theoretical physics and succeed and who's going to read English and succeed is frankly a nonsense.

"At the sort of age we're talking about people's abilities have differentiated, their interests have differentiated, their whole educational experience so far is starting to point them in directions and the idea that you put a single figure of merit on people at that age and use it to select I think is just a nonsense."

Peter Lampl remains open-minded.

"If this SAT doesn't work we will probably look - that may not be the right aptitude test for the UK and we may look at some other kind - there's two or three other tests you could use. We just felt it was good to start with the SAT," he said.

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