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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Private schools 'engines of change'
Eton College
Eton: "Too many unlevel playing fields" says union leader
The independent school sector is trying to head off any moves that would discriminate against its students when it comes to university entrance.


Any alteration to university admissions arrangements which introduced discrimination against students on the grounds of their parents' aspirations would be grossly unfair

Ian Beer, Independent Schools Council
A survey for the Independent Schools Information Service suggests that nearly half of the sixth formers who left this summer came from families where both parents had been educated in state schools.

The findings have been sent to an all-party group of MPs who are conducting an investigation into what universities are doing to attract more students from lower income backgrounds.

The independent schools say they show they are "engines of social change rather than bastions of privilege".

It would be "grossly unfair" to introduce positive discrimination against private sector pupils applying to university, said the chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Ian Beer.

'Complex issue'

The survey, carried out during the summer term, involved 8,500 sixth form leavers -nearly a quarter of the total - from more than 200 private schools.

It also showed that one third had parents who had not been to university, and one in five who had not been to independent school or university.

Mr Beer said the research challenged the "glib assumption" that all independent school pupils came from privileged backgrounds.

That notion was a key factor in the Laura Spence affair, he said - when Oxford was accused by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of being elitist after Laura, a comprehensive school pupil, failed to get a place to study medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford.

In a letter to the Commons education select committee chairman, Barry Sheerman, Mr Beer wrote: "This survey makes it clear that the real picture is much more complex and that, in an historical context, independent schools are engines of social change and mobility, rather than bastions of privilege.

"Very large numbers of the young people we educate are the children of parents who did not have the advantages of a university education or an independent school education and who have used the independent sector to try to secure what all parents want for their children - to do better than they did themselves.

"I hope your committee will agree with me that any alteration to university admissions arrangements which introduced discrimination against students on the grounds of their parents' aspirations would be grossly unfair," he said.

University offers

The survey also showed that half the sixth form leavers had offers of a place at one of Britain's top universities.

One in 10 had offers from Oxbridge, while the others were hoping to go to one of the other institutions in the Russell Group of the top 19 UK universities.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, questioned the validity of the findings, given that the proportion of the population that attended independent schools had remained stable at around 7% for some time.

Even if true, they were not an argument against positive discrimination because independent schools had up to three times as much resources than compared with state rivals, he said.

"I would still prefer to have university entrance based on merit - against a level playing field," he said.

"We don't have that with such a well-endowed private sector. There are many unlevel playing fields at Eton and it's about time they levelled them.

"We still favour positive action on the part of Oxbridge to try to redress that imbalance."

See also:

14 Sep 00 | Education
05 Sep 00 | Education
17 Aug 00 | Correspondents
19 Jun 00 | Education
05 Jun 00 | Education
26 May 00 | Education
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