The Rules of the Game

How “predicted grades” and the “personal statement” contribute to the relative failure of high-performing disadvantaged kids in the “game” of university entrance.

The Rules of the Game - click to download this pdf document.

While a-level sociology students do a lot of work on education and differential achievement, the narrative in relation to social class tends to focus on “middle class success”, “working class failure” and the various reasons, material and cultural, for this general situation.

While this is a useful and valuable focus, it does mean students can lose sight of a further dimension to educational inequality, one that is less visible and less researched but which has significant consequences: how even relatively successful working-class kids still tend to lose-out to their middle and upper class peers in the transition from school to higher education and, eventually, from H.E. to the workplace.

In “The Rules of the Game“, a recent (2017) Report for the Sutton Trust, Gill Wyness looked at two dimensions of inequality experienced by high-performing students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds:

Predicted grades

While there has, over the past few years, been a great deal of debate about whether University places should be awarded once A-level results are known (the Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) system), in England and Wales the “predicted grades” system (school students apply to University before their A-level grades are known and Universities, in turn, make conditional / unconditional offers partly on the basis of the grades “predicted” by their teachers) is still a crucial part of University application.

While predicted grades are important – they influence the type of H.E. institution to which students apply and their likelihood of conditional acceptance – Wyness has previously shown they are widely inaccurate.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean teachers are particularly bad at predicting student grades – a range of aspirational factors (such as predicting a higher grade for a student to encourage them to “aim high”) may come into play – the system itself, Wyness argues, “disadvantages the disadvantaged” because “high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts” and this, she argues, “could result in them applying to universities which are less selective than their credentials would permit”.

In this respect, “High attaining disadvantaged students” are less-likely to apply to the more-prestigious – and more selective – H.E. institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge and those in the Russell Group, than their high attaining advantaged peers. The fact they are “more likely to apply to, and to be accepted to a university which they are overqualified for” adds a further dimension of inequality in that this opens-up opportunities for “low attaining but advantaged students…to attend courses with higher ability peers”.

Personal statement

While, as Wyness notes, a change to a PQA system would, at a stroke, remove this systemic source of social inequality, a further – and more intractable – barrier to H.E. entry for lower-income students comes in the form of the personal statement. This is an important aspect of educational inequality because where students with the same or very similar predicted grades apply to an institution the evidence, Wyness suggests, is that those from disadvantaged backgrounds lose-out to their more-advantaged peers.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be supported in preparing these essays, and as such their statements tend to contain more grammatical and spelling errors. But those from deprived backgrounds are also able to provide fewer examples of the types of work and life experiences that many colleges and universities value, and use to decide between applicants”.

Teaching the Research

On a relatively simple level you can use the ideas put-forward in Wyness’ research as examples of a slightly-different type of educational inequality to those normally discussed in relation to education and achievement.

If you wanted to use the research a little more creatively, the basic idea that underpins it is that the “game” of University entrance is subtly-biased in favour of economically-advantaged students. This gives you the opportunity to explore educational inequality, using the data in the research and from elsewhere, in terms of 3 types of capital (economic, cultural and social) and, most-interestingly perhaps, how they intersect to produce subtle-but-significant educational inequalities.

A more-advanced way to use the data is to explore Bourdieu’s idea about “social magic”: in basic terms, how the product (“educational achievement”) of a wide range of social processes that involve a combination of economic, cultural and social capital, is individualised in our education system; that is, educational achievement seen almost exclusively as the product of “individual talent”.

This is something I plan to explain in more detail at some point in terms of the transition from University to the workplace (but, as you might realise by now, I wouldn’t hold your breath).

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