6 August 2021

University entrance exams will be the consequence of schools’ failures – and we should welcome that

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The pandemic has really highlighted both the importance and the fragility of the Government’s education reforms.

As teaching unions fought to keep schools shut as long as possible, it was the academy chains who supported the Government as it fought to get children back in the classroom. And the education establishment – Michael Gove’s famous ‘Blob’ – has not wasted any time trying to roll back such progress as ministers had made on toughening up exams.

Last year, after an unforgiveable failure by the Department for Education to do any sort of contingency planning, the Government was forced to capitulate on assessment and allow a whole cohort of school leavers to apply to university on the strength of their predicted grades.

The results were entirely predictable (no pun intended). Teachers were extremely generous, and places at good universities oversubscribed.

One year on and ministers have apparently not fixed the problem. According to the papers, experts have warned that universities may have to start setting their own entrance exams in order to try and reimpose some sense of order on admissions. From The Times:

“Almost two-fifths of A-levels were graded A or A* last year and even more pupils are expected to achieve the top grades this summer, according to analysis by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. He said “inflated grades” would become the new norm, making it more difficult for universities to select accurately and fairly.”

It’s heartbreaking to see the progress on exam rigour that we have made since 2010 being squandered, and Boris Johnson would do well to make education a higher priority when he finally reshuffles his Cabinet and refocuses on domestic policy priorities after the pandemic.

But even though ministers must not abandon the fight for higher standards in schools, it may be that independent university entrance exams have an important role to play in the solution and ought to have been considered before.

The basic logic is the same as the case for private schools, which I have made before. The ultimate problem with the state sector is not just that the education establishment seems deeply committed to fudging exam results in order to mask the poor outcomes of trendy methods, but that too many education secretaries end up going along with them.

Private schools provide an independent yardstick against which the relative performance of state schools can be measured, and a control group for assessing the efficacy of the various teaching fads which sweep through the teaching establishment every so often. A very good measure of state school success – one publicly endorsed by Gove – is trying to close the gap between them and their private counterparts.

University entrance exams can serve the same purpose. Dons can draw them up with the actual requirements of their courses in mind, and avoid the situation wherein universities end up having to offer remedial education to bring students up to the standards that schools ought to have left them at.

They would – or at least could, and should – also be outside the control of the Secretary of State and the school exam boards. If so, they would immediately become another yardstick by which we could measure the truth about grade inflation. Schools would be forced to bend their teaching towards independent external standards, rather than bend assessment to whatever they happen to achieve.

Why not go even further? Once universities develop the capacity to set exams appropriate for school leavers, is there any reason they couldn’t actually move into the school exam space and compete with the traditional providers? It isn’t hard to imagine schools that compete for their pupils (so keep up the academy revolution) being keen to tell parents their pupils sit an exam endorsed by one or more eminent seats of higher learning.

Indeed, such a model could have broader applications than schools and universities. One area it could really make a difference is public sector recruitment.

The rise of the ‘panic masters’ shows that the higher education treadmill shows no signs of slowing. A generation of young people are being forced to rack up debt and commit at least three years of their life to higher education, very often just to get the sort of job their parents would have been able to walk into straight out of school.

We need to shake off the deeply self-serving idea peddled by the architects of the ‘uni’ racket that every single degree is a worthwhile investment in useful skills and start persuading more school pupils to consider alternative pathways to employment. But this will be almost impossible to do so long as many employers continue to use a degree as a pre-interview applicant sifting tool.

Ministers can’t do much about the private sector, for now. But they could set an example by acting decisively against credentialism in the public sector. Why not have the Civil Service (or qualified outside experts, such as the universities) draw up an Entrance Exam that tests the key skills required for an entry-level position, and have applicants sit that rather than submitting CVs?

This would go a long way towards levelling the playing field for able people who didn’t get into a prestigious university or have the opportunity to rack up impressive extra-curricular activities.

Unfortunately, at present the institutional culture still presses the other way, with even such vocations as nursing and front-line policing calcifying into ‘graduate careers’, to the detriment of both. It would take a cabinet minister of unusual energy and vision to turn the tide. But it would be a huge step towards ‘levelling up’.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.