Yesterday I met Vice Chancellors and representatives of the Russell Group universities with other MPs about what they are doing to widen participation and promote access to their institutions. We heard about multi-million pound schemes, outreach events, summer courses and school visits. There is no doubt a huge amount of effort and resource is being devoted to making universities as open as possible.
But what are universities are doing to change the culture in our schools? After all, universities are the leading academic establishments in our country and should be showing the way. In particular they should be challenging the culture that is tacitly encouraging students at comprehensive schools to do low value subjects. How can participation levels be improved if students are studying subjects that put them out of contention for top universities?
The evidence is stark. Department of Education data shows that half the proportion of A-Level students at comprehensives are taking rigorous academic A-Levels compared to those at independent schools. The rigorous subjects are those defined as “facilitating” by the Russell Group – Mathematics, English Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography and Languages.
I have also collected data about the “non-preferred” subjects on the London School of Economics' list – Accounting, Art & Design, Business Studies, Communication Studies, Design & Technology, Drama/Theatre Studies, Home Economics, Information & Communication Technology, Law, Media Studies, Music Technology, Sports Studies and Travel & Tourism.
Sciences, Maths and Languages at A-level are increasingly the preserve of private and selective schools. Twice the proportion of students at private schools takes Mathematics, Physics or Chemistry A-level as those at comprehensive schools. Three times the proportion take foreign languages. Of the Russell Group preferred subjects only History and English are on a par at all schools.
The evidence suggests that instead comprehensive students are disproportionately taking “non-preferred” A-levels. Whilst subjects such as Art and Home Economics have been in existence since the 1950s and command an equal popularity in independent schools, there has been a substantial increase in new subjects in the 1990s and 2000s. Seven times the proportion of students at comprehensive schools study Media Studies than those at private school and more than twenty times as many of those at sixth-form and FE colleges study Law (a subject not accepted by the top law courses).
State school participation in rigorous subjects varies by local authorities with only 1% of students in Knowsley studying three rigorous A-levels compared to 25% in Hammersmith and Fulham. Of the top ten local authorities for academic rigour, nine have selective school systems.
The reality is that many students are being mis-sold low quality subjects that are not accepted at top universities to boost school and local authorities’ results. The trend is clear. From 1996 there has been a fall in the proportion of rigorous A-levels studied from nearly 60% to 50%. This is the opposite direction to many of our international competitors, who are increasing the academic content of their courses. Many students are cutting off potential options for study and work.
Only 4% of comprehensive school students apply to Oxbridge, compared to 18% of independent school students. Subject choice difference explains half the gap in applications between private and comprehensive schools. Many students have not studied the subjects that would make them eligible to apply in the first place.
Addressing this gaping divide should be a priority rather than spending more of universities' precious resources on access activity. There is also a danger that if a priority is placed on widening participation without addressing the subject divide, universities will have an incentive to offer humanities courses where there is less of a state school/independent gap over Sciences, Mathematics and Languages, that are heavily skewed towards private and grammar schools students. And Science, Mathematics and Languages are the areas that employers identify as having the greatest skill shortages.
Addressing the implicit equality in UCAS points and league tables of the rigorous and non-preferred subject should be a priority of this Government and the standards regulator OfQual. There needs to be much greater honesty in the system about the real value of Mathematics and Media Studies. I support an A-level Baccalaureate of rigorous A-levels, comprising at least an AS-Level Mathematics and an AS language or humanity, which would appear in league tables and provide a gold standard. This would give students a clear steer on the value of subjects and improve access to our universities bottom up.