Reform for our supposed meritocracy

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Currently, a student who gets AAB at A-level is going to lose out on a place at Oxford to a student who attains AAA, and if all else were equal, then that’s just how it should be. However, if that AAB student comes from a school where the average A-level grade is a D and there is no history of sending pupils to Oxbridge, and that AAA student comes from a school of Eton or Winchester calibre and isn’t extraordinarily outstanding in some other way, then I think Oxford should be admitting that AAB student and sending the straight-A guy the “I regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you a place…” bombshell. This is not a pity parade or a sympathy vote for the average Joe, and it’s not social engineering either. The fact is, this imaginary AAB guy, representative of many actual (rejected) students, is more hardworking, possibly a more independent learner, and almost definitely just smarter than his AAA counterpart.

The fact is, to surpass his schoolmates by such a significant amount, a student has to teach himself, go above and beyond what the school requires of him, and probably work in the kind of classroom atmosphere in which his classmates value the ability to play Pokemon Heartgold for Nintendo DS under their desks more highly than they value what his overworked and underpaid teacher is trying to say. By contrast, students at the top schools receive such excellent teaching that any fairly intelligent student prepared to do a bit of hard work every now and then can achieve those AAA grades, and it’s not those people that Oxford wants to populate itself with.

This isn’t necessarily a state/private distinction either, although there is certainly a correlation. I was lucky enough to attend an outstanding state sixth form college, where my top grades didn’t actually make me stand out much. In an overall atmosphere of enthusiasm, with relatively small classes and teachers who knew the exam board specifications like the back of their hands, meeting my AAA offer didn’t require an absurd amount of work. In fact, the brilliant guidance I received to that end let me devote the majority of my time to wider non-academic reading and extracurricular amusements. Ideally, that’s how it should be at every school, and that’s something we should aim for, but to compensate for the vast discrepancies in the quality of education in the meantime, I have a suggestion.

There is already a system for measuring how much a school increases a given student’s academic performance over the years that he attends the school. This system of ‘value added’ scores essentially measures the quality of teaching at a secondary school by measuring how much better pupils do at GCSE than was expected of them at age 11. I believe that when all else is equal between two Oxford applicants (same A*AA, comparable interview skills, even the same work experience and perhaps the same BMAT/LAT/HAT score), that preference should obviously be given to the student whose school as a lower value-added score.

Once that basic principle is put in place, we should go further, and consider making the notion of “value-added” an integral part of the Oxford admissions process. It is my hope that Oxford will come to recognise that AAB student who has vastly surpassed his schoolmates as more deserving of a place than the AAA student who was average in his class, not with the motivation of “giving the underdog a chance” or upping the proportion of state school admissions, but simply with the goal Oxford has had all along: admitting the best and brightest.

– Sarah Gashi
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Oxford is inundated with AAA applicants: widening the pool is unreasonable

At first I wasn’t sure what part of this argument got my hackles up (apart from the fact it could so easily have been me on the end of that rejection, in a world where my schooling had been taken into account, and counted against me.) Then I realised – it’s the lie. An Oxford rejection letter carries the implication that you are not good enough, not smart enough. With affirmative action, that implication is false. The thought of that rejection being doled out not on the basis of merit, but on where your parents (because no 11 year old makes this decision for themselves) wanted you to go to school is barbaric.

The argument that a student at a good school, either private or state, will almost instantaneously get A grades is just a tad ridiculous. Hand on heart, I went to one of the best private schools in the country (spot my bias, I dare you) and I got a B in Drama. It’s not a grade to whine about, nothing to regret, but the fact is I liked Drama, I tried hard in Drama, but I wasn’t good enough to get an A in Drama. Grades aren’t handed out on silver platters. But more importantly, grades aren’t everything, and Oxford (and oh, alright, maybe Cambridge), of all English universities, recognises that. Why else is every applicant interviewed? In going beyond the predictions, previous results, entrance tests and yes, a personal statement that could easily be crafted by the all-knowing mind of teacher in a ‘value-added’ school, the need to see how hardworking, enthusiastic and intelligent a student is must be the focus of an interview.

The interview process is where selections are made and I have no doubt that there already exists, perhaps only in the mind of each interviewer, a form of positive discrimination, balancing out predictions against probability, present enthusiasm against the past. I don’t think that could ever be prevented, unless interviewers really are the automatons we remember them as, and only turn back into cuddly tutors once Hilary term has set in. Let’s not forget there are already a large number of students competing for each place, all likely to get grades within the same bracket. Why bring another set of numbers into play, this ‘value’ of an education, when a face to face has probably told a tutor all they need to know?

So I think that’s how to handle the two identical students pitched in the second part of the article, because even if they are matched in grades, scores and experience, there must be some tell at interview to decide it. If there isn’t (which would be really spooky for the interviewer, I’m sure) surely it’s better, and fairer, to leave the choice up to a toss of a coin, rather than dictate on some arbitrary number, plucked from school statistics? There are too many variables that can never be known, from one being teacher’s pet to the other having a tutor, for ‘value added’ to come into it.

But what of the first scenario pitched, our AAA versus AAB? This is where the lie comes up most clearly, telling the first student they were worse when they weren’t. I have no problem with an AAA student being rejected if they aren’t Oxford material – aren’t keen, bright or engaged enough. If there weren’t enough of those students applying, there would be nothing at all objectionable about offering AAB, but that would never happen. The University is too popular for there to ever be a deficiency in students of a straight A calibre. While that is true, a line has to be drawn and as arbitrary as it may seem, AAA is that line. To wiggle it for one or another cannot reasonably be accomplished. Affirmative action can be applied to so many areas of life that it comes down to the individual, and there the basic principle of judging by numbers breaks down. We have to return to face to face assessment, and there’s only so many faces an interviewer can see.

Finally, let’s face it: Oxford may give you an advantage, but the AAB student who gets rejected isn’t cast out to a life of shame, rending their clothes in the street and ruing the day they ever glimpsed the dreaming spires. In all likelihood they go on to Durham, Bristol, York, or one of the other brilliant universities that really do exist out in the real world, and they achieve as much, perhaps more than they could here. Pretending that we should be giving entrance as a step up in life is ignoring, even belittling, how far someone with three decent A levels has already come, and is giving Oxford a little more of an ego boost than it deserves.

– Frankie Goodway