Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Monday, October 10, 2005
Just one problem, Minister. Last week, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, was telling the press that the current system of allocating places at university based on predicted A-Level grades was systematically unfair to poorer students. The Guardian on 4 October:
He [Mr Rammell] told the Press Association that his critics were wrong. "It is a difference of view. I think we are absolutely right to be wanting to deal with what is an inherent unfairness in the current system."

Half of all predicted A-level grades turn out to be incorrect and students from poor backgrounds were more likely than their wealthier peers to have their results under-predicted by teachers, he said.

To back up his claim, Mr Rammell referred to research carried out by a team from Oxford University on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills.

Just one problem. The research did not say what the Minister said it did. It said the opposite.

In this report for the Times by Tony Halpin, "Minister accused of twisting facts on university admission" (8 October), one of the authors of the report is described as being mystified and annoyed by the way the DfES has presented his research. The Times report says:

The DfES based “the case for change” on the fact that only 45 per cent of predicted A-level grades turn out to be accurate. They were most inaccurate for students “from the lower socio-economic groups and those from certain school or college backgrounds”.

It said that “crucially” students with underestimated grades did “not receive the conditional offers that they merit”. The document went on to argue that “the reliability of predicted grades diminishes as you move down the socio-economic groups”. Grades were accurate for 51 per cent of the wealthiest pupils, but only 39 per cent of the poorest.

Dr Hayward’s document shows clearly that this is because grades are overestimated most often for students from the poorest backgrounds. Nearly 51 per cent of predicted grades for poor students are too optimistic, compared with 41 per cent for the wealthiest.

For the record, I am not a defender of the system of conditional offers based on predicted grades. Better to let the students find out their true grades before applying, as Mr Rammell seems to want. But his means of attempting to persuade us ought to get someone the sack.

I'm guessing it won't be Mr Rammell himself. He's a sly one, he is, and is far from out of tricks. Read his reply to the Times.

I have never sought to deliberately mislead anyone. One sentence in the original DfES press release is incorrect. This was a genuine mistake, which I regret and apologise for.
[Here is said press release. It's dated 9 October so it ought to be the amended version. However it still contains the claim "The highest socio-economic groups are more likely to have their grades over-predicted, compared to the lowest socio-economic group, who are more likely to receive under-predicted grades." What is going on? I give up.] The Minister continues:
It does not, however, invalidate the central argument made in the release and repeated in countless interviews since: only 45 per cent of predicted A-level grades are accurate.
Inaccuracy per se was not his central argument then; systemic bias against poorer students was.
This is of concern for students, whatever their background. However, the predicted grades are most inaccurate for students from lower socio- economic groups and these students are vastly underrepresented in higher education.
Mmmmm, drink that last sentence in. Admire the masterly restraint with which the two quite separate ideas "predicted grades are most inaccurate for students from lower socio-economic groups" and "these students are vastly underrepresented in higher education" are linked by a simple, unadorned "and". He knows full well that the human love of a story will take that "and" and construct from it a chain of cause and effect. Only those readers who paid particular attention to the earlier story will see what is going on. The Minister wisely does not recap in his letter what the misleading claim he is accused of spreading actually was. Few will check back.

In the rest of the letter Mr Rammell explains why both under- and over-predicted grades are a problem. All very true, but little to do with what he was saying last week. Last week the claim that deprived students were being underestimated was "crucial". His line then was, "Yes, this is social engineering and I'm proud of it." All this argument about over-predicted grades also being a problem for poor students has been dug up in the last few days. No Labour minister ever born would describe action to stop the poor being overestimated as bold social engineering.

It's as if the star of the show died and an understudy had to be squeezed into the old star's costume whether it fitted or not.