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Equal access

Reforms to school and university admissions could transform the life chances of disadvantaged children and young people, as Lindsey Macmillan and Jake Anders explain



In theory, equality of opportunity is a core British value. Yet today, around 40 per cent of inequality within generations is passed on to the next generation. This opportunity divide is a result of the way we have chosen to structure our society.

Children from wealthier families receive multiple advantages throughout childhood, beginning as early as then the prenatal period, when they benefit from differential health investments. Such disparities continue through the early years, for example through home learning environments. By the time children start school, those from wealthier families are already ahead of their disadvantaged peers in terms of development.

At the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising opportunities (CEPEO), we have shown that schooling perpetuates this drive towards inequality: education experiences account for around half of the inequality between those from wealthier and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The development gaps already present as a child enters the education system widen throughout school, through access to different quality schooling and sustained differences in the extent to which parents are able to invest time and money into their children’s education.

It does not have to be this way. At its best, education can be a powerful force for equality. In this spirit, we recently launched New Opportunities, a set of evidence-based policy priorities for equalising opportunities.

Our policy priorities draw on the most rigorous evidence available to offer evidence-led policy solutions. As inequalities compound throughout life, our priorities span early years, school, tertiary education, and the labour market. In the current fiscal climate, we propose eight low-cost easily attainable changes. But to create meaningful change, we also propose six more ambitious reforms that tackle some of the huge structural inequalities that exist in our system. Here we highlight two of these: reforming admissions processes for schools and universities respectively. The challenges of the current system differ somewhat between these two areas, but both are vital areas for evidence-based policy reform.

Reforming school admissions

Pupils from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend schools that get better results in national tests. In London, pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend, on average, schools where 59 per cent of pupils achieve 5 or more passes at GCSE, compared to 65 per cent for non-FSM students. The gap is wider still outside London. Non-FSM students tend to attend schools where there is a greater chance of academic success, with significant implications for their future prospects.

People sometimes suggest that this is because less advantaged families differ in their approach to choosing schools. But analysis of families’ preferences for secondary schools suggests this is not the main cause. Families of FSM pupils are only slightly more likely than more advantaged families to express a preference for only a single secondary school, or to make their closest school their first preference. This suggests little systematic difference in the degree of active engagement with school choice.

What, then, explains the difference? It is mainly driven by more affluent families being more likely to live closer to good schools combined with admissions rules that prioritise the distance from prospective pupils’ homes. While this makes sense if all schools are equally good for all pupils, given disparities in school quality, it ends up limiting the ability of some pupils – disproportionately those from less advantaged backgrounds – to access the best school to which they could reasonably travel. As a result, disadvantaged families are limited in their ability to access schools with their preferred characteristics.

This is particularly important because parents and pupils seem to do a good job of picking schools when given a choice. Pupils who get into their first choice school do better than if they attend one of their lower-ranked schools, and this boost is not explained by differences in average effectiveness between the two schools.

Grammar schools are another feature of our school admissions system that disrupt fair access to high-quality schools for all pupils. They are highly socially selective, with stark differences in selective schooling areas. Just 6 per cent of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds attend a grammar school. It is only in the top 10 per cent of the socioeconomic status distribution that more than half of students attend a grammar school. The top percentile group, however, has a grammar school attendance rate of 80 per cent.

This is not just because of correlations between academic attainment and socioeconomic status. Pupils with the same level of attainment in their end of Key Stage 2 tests (taken in the same school year as grammar school entry tests) are much more likely to attend a grammar school if they are from advantaged backgrounds. High-attaining young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to be taking the entry tests or are doing less well in those tests than we would expect from other measures of their attainment. This latter factor could well be explained by the big differences in private tutoring by family income.

And if you live in a grammar school area, then missing out on a place matters for your long-term life chances. High-attaining pupils who miss out are less likely to go on to university. If they do, their chances of attending a high-status university and achieving a good degree classification are lower compared to otherwise similar pupils who went to grammar schools.

Converting the remaining grammar schools into non-selective schools, then, would be a significant step towards educational equality (it is already prohibited to create new grammar schools). But there are other, less obvious reforms that we should make to school admissions. Ultimately, the aim is to ensure that parents and pupils choose schools – not the other way around. However, given the realities of school capacity, it is more realistic to introduce requirements that counterbalance the current socioeconomic biases, such as requiring schools to prioritise applicants who are eligible for the pupil premium.

Post-qualification admissions

The UK is the only country in the world where young people apply to university before receiving their exam results, using instead grades predicted by their teachers.

But these predicted grades are inaccurate. Only 16 per cent of applicants achieve the A-level grades they were predicted, while 75 per cent are over-predicted. Moreover, among equally high-attaining students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive less generous predictions.

CEPEO research has shown that even when relying on advanced statistical methods, including ‘machine learning’, it is only possible to predict the grades of one in four students accurately from their attainment in previous years. Teachers are not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades – we are asking them to do an impossible task.

These systematic errors in predicted grades are important. That high-attaining disadvantaged students and state school students receive less generous grades than their more advantaged and independent school counterparts has consequences for their course application decisions. High-attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘undermatch’ and enter less selective courses, leading to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative to teacher predicted grades, used by every other major education system worldwide, is a post-qualification application (PQA) system. This would allow students to make university applications after receiving their A-level results. This system would be more accurate, fairer, and bring the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing students to make these life-changing application decisions with all the relevant information in hand.

We can move towards PQA with minimal disruption to the current system. One possibility would be to condense the final exam period to four weeks and allow a shorter exam marking period of seven to eight weeks. Examinations would take place in early May. Students would return to school afterwards, receiving their results in mid-July, in time for an in-school ‘applications week’. Universities would then have a month to process and make offers at the end of August, and students would have a short time to accept their favoured choice.

The path forward

Reforms to school and university admissions would both make a significant difference in equalising young people’s opportunities to get the best possible education and, hence, the right start in life.

Reducing the importance of proximity in the school selection process, and, in doing so, the link between family income and school, could make a significant difference to life chances. Requiring schools to prioritise applicants who are eligible for the pupil premium, or, more radically, introducing a degree of random assignment of pupils to schools within certain areas are examples of ways to level this aspect of the education playing field.

Likewise, the achievable aim of a post-qualification admissions system for university would put paid to a system that denies young people the opportunity to have full information about their academic achievements before making life-changing decisions, and deliver a system in which their applications are assessed using their actual achievements.

These proposals are part of CEPEO’s wider programme of policy priorities, all of which offer evidence-led, practical steps to move towards a society of more equal opportunities. In developing these, we are mindful of the challenge of competing priorities and fiscal challenges. We have focused on low-cost proposals, grounded in evidence, readily attainable, and substantively important to these aims. Both of these aspects of admissions reform are important elements of an agenda to create a more equitable society through education policy.


Image credit: University of Salford press office via Flickr

Image credit (pinned N&I page): Dmvward, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lindsey Macmillan

Lindsey Macmillan is professor of economics and the founding director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) at University College London. She is a research fellow in the education and skills sector at the Institute for Fiscal Studies


Jake Anders

Jake Anders is associate professor and deputy director of the Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) at University College London. He is principal investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO).


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