Public schools threaten university boycott

Public schools should boycott universities that discriminate against their pupils in favour of state-educated applicants, leading head teachers said.

Schools should plan a repeat of action staged against Bristol almost a decade ago if institutions attempted to engineer their intake to hit controversial new admissions targets, said Chris Ramsey, the universities spokesman for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.

Nine years ago, thousands of pupils were urged not to apply to Bristol in protest over the “arbitrary rejection” of well-qualified candidates from leading schools. It was called off after school leaders received assurances that the university would treat privately­educated teenagers the same as those from state schools.

In returning for charging up to £9,000 in fees, all universities are now expected to draw up “access agreements” setting out targets designed to increase admissions among pupils from “unrepresented groups”.

Speaking at the HMC’s annual conference in Belfast, Mr Ramsey said schools should consider repeating the action against any other university that “systematically” discriminated against privately educated pupils.

“We can influence [universities’] behaviour by advising good students to go or not to go to them, and that’s obviously something that I suspect is very relevant to them,” said Mr Ramsey, the headmaster of The King’s School, Chester.

“There was a period just under a decade ago where we in independent schools advised students not to apply to Bristol and they didn’t like that. It definitely had an impact.

“If in the end we felt that a university was systematically operating its admissions in a way which was disadvantaging the candidates for whom in the end we speak, we might say that.”

The comments were made after figures showed that more than half of universities in the elite Russell Group were setting targets to boost the number of pupils admitted from state schools.

An analysis of agreements signed with the Government’s Office for Fair Access shows that 11 out of 20 English members are currently trying to boost state school admissions.

The HMC, which represents more than 250 leading independent schools, has lobbied Prof Les Ebdon, the head of fair access, urging him to abolish admissions targets based on school type. It says they are “inherently wrong”.

Institutions are given freedom to cater for different groups in “access agreements”, including state school pupils, those from the poorest homes, students with disabilities, ethnic minority candidates and young people brought up in areas with a poor record of going on to higher education.

University College London has set itself a target to raise state school admissions from about two thirds to about three quarters within four years.

Universities say they are attempting to meet targets by encouraging more bright state school students to apply and are not discriminating in their favour. But some have been criticised for admitting a large number of students with lower A-level grades from poorly performing schools than those from top institutions.

Mr Ramsey admitted that there was no evidence to suggest that the targets had led to discrimination against independently educated teenagers, but disclosed that the HMC had met Prof Ebdon urging him to scrap all targets that differentiate between state and independent schools.

“We said that targets by school type are inherently wrong,” he said. “Higher education is all about social mobility and it’s absolutely right that people’s potential is realised and access to the very best education should be for the very best kids.

“I invited him to send back to any university an access agreement that had percentage of school type and ask them to rewrite it.

“My view is you shouldn’t have targets around where people were educated — you should have targets about how good they are.”

He said that targets based on school types gave an unfair advantage to pupils from rich homes sent to high-performing state schools.

He cited the children of Tony Blair, who were sent to the London Oratory, a Roman Catholic secondary in west London.

“You are making the assumption that everybody in independent schools is socially advantaged and everybody in state schools is not,” he said.

“We know, self-evidently, Tony Blair’s children were more socially advanced than quite a lot of the kids in my school. We give 10 per cent of the kids in my school bursaries — quite a lot of them on 100 per cent.”

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