Recently the Sutton Trust published an analysis of the relative successes different schools had in getting students into different universities: Oxbridge, the broader cohort of ‘top’ universities referred to as the Sutton 30, and universities overall. One of the schools identified in the group that sent the largest numbers of students to Oxbridge – indeed the only state school named in the headline story – was one of my local Cambridge schools, Hills Road 6th Form College. This school is huge, with an intake of around 1000 pupils a year, and certainly will have a large number of Cambridge academics amongst its parents. Over the years it has had a formidable reputation (such as topping the national A level league table for state schools for several years in succession) so it must be doing something right, even its intake may not be entirely typical of the country as a whole. Undoubtedly some of that lies in its ability and willingness to do mock interviews for Oxbridge and provide wise advice as students start to think about filling in their UCAS forms. Other issues also come into play including the fact that as local children choose which of the 6th form colleges to apply for, they know full well that Hills Road has high expectations and is – in the words of some – a sausage machine for turning out high A level grades. Some children are clued up enough about themselves to know that that is not for them, so there is a degree of self-selection going on, as well as any selection the Hills Road school itself may impose in its admissions policy.
The Guardian followed the Sutton Trust’s report up with an article discussing how schools with comparable exam results can differ very substantially in their success rates in getting students into the Sutton 30 universities, proving ability pure and simple is not the whole story. In large part this comes down to what the schools are able to do in getting requisite information out to the students from an early age. IAG – that is Information, Advice and Guidance – is about to go through an overhaul. We can only hope that this improves the information getting out there, because very clearly a large number of kids are getting woefully inadequate information. Students apply for courses for which their qualifications aren’t appropriate; The Royal Society’s education report State of the Nation 4 highlighted the relatively low numbers of students in England doing more than a single science A level – thereby disqualifying them from many if not the majority of traditional science courses. Furthermore students in surprisingly high numbers accept a university insurance offer requiring equal (or even more astonishingly, higher) grades than their first choice. One has to wonder how schools neglect to put across successfully the basic fact of how an insurance choice works. IAG is also about careers’ advice, but with only a tiny proportion of those providing the advice having a science background themselves it is not surprising the information they are able to provide may not always be optimum when it comes to either careers or university courses in science. Appropriate advice needs to start filtering through well before kids start making decisions about GCSE choices, let alone A levels, or they may well find themselves disbarred from what they want to do by accident. Simon Hughes recognizes this in his recent report to Government, recommending careers’ advice should start before children leave primary school, encouraging children to have aspirations which should (where appropriate and regardless of parental background) include thinking about the possibility of university.
In this same report, rather bizarrely and with very little justification or explanation, Hughes suggests the Oxbridge interview, at least in its current form, should be scrapped. But the need to learn how to put yourself across well at interview extends well beyond Oxbridge admissions. Getting a grip on this is something schools can usefully pass on through mock interviews, as Hills Road does, but it is of importance at every stage of life. We all get thrust into situations – for job (or fellowship) interviews but also when simply making a presentation to a committee or taking part in a discussion – when having clear ideas about how to assemble and marshall arguments coupled with the ability to think quickly on your feet in response to questions and defend yourself against unexpected attacks are vital, as is having the right body language. Some skills can be taught in this direction. At the most basic level this might amount to no more than making eye contact and speaking clearly – as proposed by the Fairy Jobmother in one of the ubiquitous reality TV shows, this time about working with the long term unemployed. But for many just having these basic skills drawn to their attention can be an eye-opener.
Not painting yourself into a corner is another skill about which students should be advised. For instance, in many situations an interviewer will try to start things off by throwing out an easy, open-ended question to get the conversation going. As an example, I have asked students (in college admission interviews) to tell me what they think the most important discovery in physics in the last 50 years has been, the idea being to allow them to start them talking comfortably about something that interests them. I really don’t care what answer they give me, there is no ‘right’ answer. I merely want to determine their interests, their ability to string a coherent story together and see how they weave science into their lives beyond the curriculum. One year a student answered ‘electron microscopy’ which, as an electron microscopist myself, pleased and intrigued me. ‘OK, tell me some more’ I said, ‘tell me what’s so important and how it works’. ‘Err, I dunno’ came back the answer. Black mark. That student had taken a very friendly piece of rope and hung themselves with it. Although no school could be expected to prepare students for specific questions of this type, they could be expected to say that there will be general questions posed, when the important thing is to be able to talk fluently about a topic they will be given some choice in, and never to answer an open question with something that they can’t follow up on.
In order to increase social mobility, as this government purports to want, in terms of who gets to go to (which) university, some serious thought should be given to how information, advice and guidance operates in schools and it is good to see Hughes identifying this as vital. This means not just the provision of bumf highlighting the availability of modern apprentices (and given recent reports about work experience placements, I would guess those recommendations will be along the lines of hairdressing for girls and building trades for boys), or weighty tomes about narrowly defined career options lacking a map of the trajectory required to get there. I’d like to think that the Hughes’ report will quickly stimulate some serious thought about what information is most usefully provided and when. But training in practical skills as well as voluminous paperwork are needed: concrete advice, serious one-on-one discussion about requisite qualifications at an early stage and mock interviews and role plays to confer basic skills and confidence. Limits on social mobility cannot simply be laid at the door of universities.