State school pupils face unfair fight for university places, charity warns

Sutton Trust calls for revamp after study of personal statements of achievements reveals disparities

Sutton Trust says the university admissions system could be made fairer. 

State school pupils too often face an unfair fight to get into top universities because of the system of using personal statements of achievements to distinguish between those with equal academic attainment, a leading education charity has warned.

The Sutton Trust is urging Ucas, which administers university entries, to revise the system, arguing that private school students not only tend to submit more carefully-crafted statements but generally have a more privileged set of experiences about which to boast such as work experience at blue chip employers.

The recommendation comes in a study by Steven Jones, an education lecturer at Manchester University, who studied more than 300 personal statements submitted to the same department of a leading university by students with the same A-level results.

As an example of the sorts of disparities visible, the report cites one private school pupil who recounts work experience for a designer in London, on the trading floor of a financial broker, at a BBC radio station and in a City law firm, contrasting this with a state student who discusses a school trip to Cadbury World.

Of the sample of applicants, the study found that 70% of the private pupils were offered places, compared with 50% of those from state schools and sixth form colleges.

The trust says the system could be made fairer by asking applicants to describe what talents and attributes they would bring rather than describing prior achievements, with a limit on the number of experiences listed. State schools could offer better support in helping pupils with statements while admissions tutors could take more account of an applicants' social background.

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, said good state institutions already offered pupils proper help "but admissions processes also need to change".

He added: "Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages. Applicants should outline how they might contribute to campus life, and universities should make it clear that applicants are not penalised for lacking opportunities in the past due to family circumstances."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the report raised important questions. "However, it is important to remember that university admissions staff are highly experienced at recognising this and taking such things into account when interpreting personal statements," she said. "It is also important to be aware that the personal statement is only one factor universities take into account when selecting applicants."

- Guardian.co.uk


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