What will new grammar schools mean to UK universities?

‘Institutions attempting to run fair (contextualised) admissions will have more factors to take into account. At the very least, a wave of new grammar schools (and therefore an increase in the number of secondary moderns alongside) would increase the diversity of the UK’s school system, and many universities seek to account for such diversity in schooling when assessing applicants.

There is another question of relevance to higher education too, though. The UK has a hyper-selective university system. At its simplest, this means that the best-performing school pupils tend to aim for Oxbridge or other (generally ancient) prestigious institutions and, if they get in, typically travel halfway across the country to take up a residential place – on something I have in the past termed the boarding school model of higher education. Indeed, this national hierarchical system is the very reason why it is so important to have sensitive admissions arrangements that respond to different students’ characteristics.

The complicated admissions procedures seem normal to many Britons because they are so deeply ingrained, but they are unusual across the world – as our work on Australia, for example, shows, in many countries you generally go to a local university rather than one that could be tens or even hundreds of miles away. In these other countries, there is typically a less clear hierarchy of institutions (although not necessarily an absence of hierarchy – big Australian cities have more than one university with more than one mission).

It is striking how the opponents of grammar schools, including those working inside higher education institutions, rarely turn their fire on our system of hyper-selective universities. Indeed, sometimes they campaign for comprehensive schools on the grounds that they help people from tougher backgrounds reach the most selective universities. (There are a small number of exceptions, most notably Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister, whose recent Gresham Lecture asked: “Would it not be a worthy goal to try to create ‘comprehensive’ universities with a much more socially and academically mixed student population than exists at present?”) – Times Higher Education


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