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Students’ performance should be looked at in context, the report said

Universities have been given the green light to make a range of offers based on the performance of the school candidates come from.

A government-backed report said admissions tutors should use a wide range of information to identify the students with the greatest potential.

The National Council for Educational Excellence report said such decisions should be open and transparent.

The government accepted this, and the report’s other findings.

The report by a panel of university vice-chancellors, head teachers, ministers and business leaders said schools and colleges should significantly improve the support and advice to students with the ability to enter higher education.

We’re not saying if you go to an independent school you’re not going to get an offer, we’re not distinguishing between types of schools
Professor Smith

The group was set up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in June 2007 to look at how England’s education system could be made “world class” and how young people could be helped to fulfil their potential.

Panel chairman and vice-chancellor of Exeter University and universities umbrella group Universities UK Professor Steve Smith said: “What we are saying is that we should be taking into account the context in which you got the grades you got.

“So that’s actually about school performance.”

However, the difference between offers was likely to be fairly small, he said.

“We’re not saying if you go to an independent school you’re not going to get an offer, we’re not distinguishing between types of schools.

“But you could look at how well a student is doing compared to the performance of their schools and within the published offer range.

“What we are saying is it is OK to offer differentially at A-level because we are trying to find the pupils with most potential.”

He gave the example of how pupils from independent schools were asked to obtain 3 As at A-level to study English at Exeter.

A pupil from a challenging school might have to achieve two As and a B, he said.

Universities have for many years made different offers based on the background of the candidate, but Prof Smith says such admissions policies have not always been transparent.

The report also recommended that primary school and younger secondary school pupils should visit universities to raise the chances of them going on to study at one.

Family tradition

Schools should nurture ambition in students from poorer families to study at the most selective universities, it said.

And all secondary schools should appoint a senior member of staff to be responsible for advice on university admissions and careers guidance. This should include tips on which subjects to choose at A-level.

The government should consider asking Ofsted to inspect the quality of the advice given, it added.

The report also called on all universities to produce comprehensive strategies for their work on widening participation.

These should include measures for improving school performance, whether that be by supporting Academies and school trusts or other means.

And in return the Office for Fair Access should acknowledge the full range of contributions universities make in trying to attract more students from non-traditional backgrounds.

But this did not mean an end to the unpopular targets universities are given every year on the proportion of students they take from poorer backgrounds, said Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell

A-level subjects

He said: “I have long been of the view that the earlier the intervention – the planting of that germ of an idea that ‘university might be for me’ – the better.

“If you come from a family where your parents or someone else in the family has been to university you probably have some idea of what university is at primary school.”

This was not the case if you did not, he said.

President of Universities UK Professor Rick Trainor said: “Universities make strenuous efforts to seek out potential by looking at a number of factors when selecting students, but, as we’ve said consistently, they cannot admit people who are not applying to university.”

NUS President Wes Streeting his union was a strong supporter of this government’s efforts to widen participation in higher education and to unlock the talents of every individual.

Shadow Universities Secretary David Willetts said the Tories had produced analysis showing better advice was key.

“At the moment, one-third of all A-level entries are in subjects that universities value less. So the report is right to focus on today’s problems.”