John Blake, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, was quoted in the Telegraph this week as saying that the higher education sector needed to have a “conversation” about the “enormous intersections between different types of disadvantage and the right measures and metrics for dealing with disadvantage for certain groups.”
I could not agree more.
The current measures of deprivation used by universities, ACORN and POLAR, are approximate at best and arguably not fit for purpose at worst. The key problem is that neither was designed to facilitate fair access: ACORN is a marketing tool which segments the population into different types according to location, while POLAR looks at the progression rate at age 18 to Higher Education based on postcodes, and ranks it in quintiles– currently based on data from 2013-14 at the latest.
“The first set of externally-verified flagged FSM candidates are currently being processed by ISC and UCAS.”
As James Turner put it while he was CEO of the Sutton Trust, the holy grail is individualised externally-verifiable data. While POLAR and ACORN do not tell us about individual students and their families, they are nationally-recognised measures which are sometimes revealing and sometimes off the mark.
Could the Office for Students use a better metric? This was one of the many questions we pondered as part of a cross-sector working group on widening participation, one product of which was this booklet– we were by no means the first or only people to ask that question, and it is great to see that this is evidently on John Blake’s agenda.
Until just last year, the DFE did not receive Free School Meal eligibility information, either current or historic, so there was no mechanism for flagging this vital piece of information which can help to support an understanding of an applicant’s socio-economic circumstances.
“The tendency to Dickensianise the sector is as familiar as it is unfair.”
James Turner was part of HMC’s working group, and during the summer of 2021 the Sutton Trust secured the flagging of FSM data for state school pupils. This success created a more urgent challenge for the independent sector, and it is why HMC has worked with ISC, UCAS and Bursary Assessment Associates to create the Free School Meals Contextualised Data Service. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and the first set of externally-verified flagged FSM candidates are currently being processed by ISC and UCAS so that they will be flagged to their universities of choice.
It is an important step to have a metric which is based on the individual pupil experience, and it is also testament to how seriously many in the sector are taking the fair access agenda. In common with many schools, Magdalen College School focuses its schools partnership work on transition points, helping primary school pupils prepare for secondary, and in preparing Sixth Formers for university. Year in, year out, MCS prepares more medics from our partner schools for the university entrance process than we do our own pupils.
“Those with eligibility for FSM become the only deserving category of independent school pupil, and the rest can be written off as privileged toffs.”
Yet underneath the success in flagging FSM data for all students, state and independent, there is another lurking danger: that those with eligibility for FSM become the only deserving category of independent school pupil, and the rest can therefore be written off as privileged toffs. (The same could be said for grammar schools, who have come under fire for an FSM constituency which is lower than some independent schools owing to the latter’s growing bursary provision.)
This tendency to Dickensianise the sector is as familiar as it is unfair. It risks penalising university applicants from the kinds of families whom John Blake also went on to discuss, those who have worked hard to pay fees and prioritised and supported their children’s education.
A narrative which pits pupils from different school types against each other is doubly tough to take in an environment which has seen rising numbers of international pupils. Durham, St Andrews and Bath all saw increases in foreign students of 15 per cent or more last year, and it is therefore unsurprising to see that “home” “middle class” students were therefore losing out. No-one is entitled to a university place, but when the debate is about fair access, surely all applicants are at least allowed to wonder about what might or might not be fair?