Private schools under fire after pre-emtive strike to get underperformers into university

Private schools are facing a backlash from MPs for lobbying universities to take pupils who have dropped grades, a fortnight before A-Level results have been released.

Disruption to education caused by the pandemic has put schools in the unusual position of already knowing their pupils’ outcomes, as teachers awarded A-Level results this year.

It has led to some private schools trying to steal a march on rivals by sending letters to top universities on behalf of pupils known to have underperformed, pleading for them to still be given their places.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, which represents more than 1,300 schools, confirmed the trend, and urged other schools to follow suit.

“We know it will be a very pressured year. Given that schools know pupils’ grades, they should contact universities about candidates they know have just missed out on their offers straight away,” the former headmaster of Harrow told The Sunday Times.

The impact of the pandemic

Many of the excuses offered in the letters sent by private schools were said to relate to the disruption that pupils have faced due to the pandemic.

The shift in approach to this year’s A-Levels (which saw exams cancelled and the assessment responsibility passed to teachers) is expected to lead to a significant rise in the number of pupils winning top grades.

It is feared this will result in huge competition for places at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, as well as medical schools, motivating teachers to do all they can to secure places for their pupils.

The revelations on Sunday prompted a fierce backlash from MPs, who expressed astonishment that Mr Lenon had made such a public call for schools to apparently try to play the system.

Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the education select committee, told The Telegraph he was not opposed to private schools, but believed meritocracy, not privilege, should drive a student’s advancement.  

He said: “Private schools shouldn’t be using their privileged social networks and going through the back door: there should be a genuine ladder of opportunity for all students.

“I think they are taking the mick. I hope the universities give them short shrift.

“We know kids from state schools have had the least learning, the least access to laptops, the least remote teaching in the last year.

“We have to remember that disadvantaged pupils have suffered the most. Then for private schools, which have those extra advantages in the system, to do this sort of thing is pretty appalling.”

His concerns were echoed by David Johnston, a fellow Tory member of the education committee, who suggested that the private schools were guilty of double standards.

“When any move is made to increase the (number) of people from state schools at top universities (including contextualising their grades) the papers are full of comments from private school (representatives) that it is ‘lowering standards’ and ‘positive discrimination’,” he wrote on Twitter.

Ucas, the university admissions service, on Sunday sought to offer reassurance to pupils that “the whole sector will be working in their best interest” on results day.

Five things to know about the university admissions process in 2021

A spokesman added: “Whatever situation students find themselves in on results day, they can be assured that the admissions process is robust and fair and universities are skilled at considering all the information they have about each applicant, such as their personal statement and references, which can include any mitigating circumstances the school wished to highlight as part of it, as well as their grades, before making a confirmation decision.”

Mr Halfon expressed doubt, however, that university admissions departments would be able to properly resist the entreaties of private schools when one of their pupils has underperformed.

He said: “These schools are going to be seasoned at this sort of thing: a nod here, a wink there. This probably goes on all the time.”

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