Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Universities should drop entry requirements by up to two A level grades for students from "disadvantaged" backgrounds in order to widen participation, according to a government-commissioned study. Admissions tutors should lower the bar for pupils in care, those attending poorly-performing schools, those who suffer from long-term disability or sickness and those who have to look after sick relatives, it said. The tutors should also collaborate with each other to ensure that more deprived children enter the top universities.

Academics at Leeds University found that while most universities had a programme to encourage more applications from working-class backgrounds, systems varied and only a few hundred were recruited annually by this route.

The study, published tomorrow, follows the release of Ucas figures last week that showed that 5,400 fewer students from "lower-income backgrounds" had started university this year, amid fears of increasing debt over higher fees. The authors of the study praised those universities that chose pupils on the basis of their potential, even if their grades were lower than the entry requirements. "We know of heavily oversubscribed courses where admissions tutors have made offers of an A and two Bs to impressive applicants in disadvantaged circumstances who have demonstrated appropriate personal qualities, while rejecting other applicants with three predicted As," they wrote. "Admissions tutors prepared to do this have our strong support."

The researchers acknowledged fears that students being turned away with higher grades could mount legal challenges, but pointed out that most disadvantaged students admitted on this basis showed "no significant differences in their referral and withdrawal rates as compared with the university average".

Paul Sharp, co-author of Opportunity and Equity: Developing a Framework for Good Practice in Compact Schemes, said that universities put a lot of effort into widening participation, but needed to publicise it more and share good practice. He refused to endorse a compulsory scheme of lowering grades.

In 2003, the Government's White Paper on Higher Education pointed out that young people from the professional classes were "over five times more likely to enter higher education than those from unskilled backgrounds".

The next year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the proportion of state students decreased in 14 of the 19 leading Russell Group universities, with only 53.4 per cent of Oxford admissions coming from state schools. Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, said that the report set out good principles but threw up several "potential minefields". Although he supported sharing good practice, there also came a point when colleges competed for the best students, he said. Under the Cambridge Special Access scheme, the university already accepted students with lower grades, he said. "But at the moment there needs to be a very large disadvantage to make it a B rather than an A," he said. "Unless we move to a system where the offers could be more finely graduated, it would be very difficult to make those adjustments."

An aide to Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said that he favoured the idea of universities assessing an applicant's potential and awaited the report with interest.


British schools as Orwell's "Big Brother"

No matter where you are, your school will see you and punish you for deviance

Three pupils were expelled last week from St George's School Harpenden, a prestigious state boarding school in Hertfordshire, for smoking cannabis during the summer holidays. But should schools be disciplining children for what goes on beyond the school gate?

Harpenden is an affluent commuter town. Its leafy roads and traditional high street do not point to an endemic drugs problem bought on by social exclusion, especially not involving St George's pupils where `there is a sense of real purpose and harmony based on Christian principles and our traditions,' according to the headmaster, Norman Hoare.

Rumours of drug abuse surfaced this autumn and an investigation was launched by the school. The subsequent expulsions were based on interviews held by St George's. Whilst cannabis use is illegal, the police told me that they would not be taking any action after concluding that there was too little evidence to pursue the matter.

Norman Hoare told BBC News: `The school has a duty to uphold the law and protect all students but none of our investigations showed that the drugs had been on our premises. The activities took place after school or at weekends and some of it started in July. That's one of the reasons we acted very quickly.'

Hoare's ideas on the boundaries of school authority are not shared by everyone. One angry parent contacted spiked, even though his children were not involved: `At what point does the school's jurisdiction end? I am completely opposed to the control of my children outside of school hours.' When I asked Norman Hoare why he had expelled students on the basis of drug use outside of school term, he replied that `the pupils who join the school are aware of our drugs policy'. However, his actions seem to go beyond the policy stated on the school's website: `A period of fixed term exclusion [ie, suspension] from school would normally be the penalty for involvement in purchase, possession, or consumption of illegal drugs or substance of abuse while under school jurisdiction.'

Events at St George's contrast with a case heard by the High Court in September. A school in Birmingham had its decision to expel two pupils for cannabis use overturned because their expulsion contravened government guidelines on exclusion for minor drug offences. These pupils were caught smoking on school grounds and some kind of punishment by the school was to be expected. But the St George's pupils were not caught by the police or anyone from the school; they were allegedly using cannabis outside of school term and were not dealing drugs.

St George's sees the alleged minor drug use of a few of its pupils outside school hours as its responsibility - parents are not to be trusted. In doing so, the headmaster was only following the lead of the New Labour government; it does not trust private individuals. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 gives head teachers the authority to fine parents and issue parenting orders forcing them to attend counselling. Where once schools stood for moral guidance, they are now expected to play a much more interventionist and authoritarian role. As David Perks has noted elsewhere on spiked: `the government sees schools as a blunt weapon in a war against what it sees as feckless parents and feral children. Education policy has become part of a wider attempt to control people's behaviour.'

So how should we deal with children who experiment with drugs and why do they do it? I asked Patrick Turner, writer, lecturer and former drugs worker: `The same as we have traditionally done with alcohol. A degree of indulgence towards the desire to experiment and enjoy adult pleasures seasoned with a sensitivity to the circumstances and motives of the individuals concerned. Put simply, the risk associated with a stable, self-aware young person who has lots of support messing around with dope is not the same as that posed to the young person, say, in local authority care with a history of poor mental health.'

In fact, government guidelines on expulsion seem to fit well with Turner's statement: `Exclusion should only be considered for serious breaches of the school's behaviour policy, and should not be imposed without a thorough investigation unless there is an immediate threat to the safety of others in the school or the pupil concerned. It should not be used if alternative solutions have the potential to achieve a change in the pupil's behaviour and are not detrimental to the whole school community.' So, why has this school gone further? Norman Hoare had not heard about the Birmingham case in which the High Court ruled these guidelines took precedence over school decisions. I suspect when the St George's board of governers examines the expulsion they may well overturn it in light of the Birmingham case.

This episode is indicative of the mixed messages from government about drugs, and the contradictory positions they adopt. The government's downgrading of cannabis to a class `C' drug has added to the mess since the law itself is a combination of `hard' and `soft' signals. So while the maximum sentence for possession will fall from five years to two, penalties for adults supplying cannabis will remain at a maximum of 14 years compared to the five years for other class `C' drugs.

There is no right for children to experiment with cannabis, but it would be better to have childhood experimentation dealt with in a constructive manner. That means schools should not overstep the boundaries of their authority, and government should not politicise and proceduralise matters that are best dealt with informally.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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