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Is it time to abandon entry criteria? - Ian Pryce CBE

14th September 2023

Ian Pryce, chief executive of the Bedford College Group

Over the summer, we have seen new research on grammar schools suggesting such a system doesn’t even help the highest performing students do better than they otherwise would, and we have seen a debate about new “elite” sixth form academies involving Eton, and the likelihood of them “creaming off” the most talented and reducing overall attainment within those communities.

There is plenty of evidence to support the contention that this sort of selection is counter-productive and damages the broader educational system. But that being the case, should we not consider the much more widespread use of selection in the college system?

Every college is highly selective, far more selective than schools, with strict entry criteria for almost every programme on offer, even at the level studied unselectively at secondary school 14-16. Could we be accused of being an engine of social immobility using your educational track record to keep you in your lane? What is the evidence this approach is best for the wider community if that cannot be said for 11 year-olds or selective sixth forms?

Like most colleges, we have been seriously concerned at the impact of Covid-19 on student attendance, but equally have been fearful of withdrawing or excluding students whose low attendance would not have been tolerated in the past. As a result, we have some rich data on the impact of attendance on student achievement and it is stark.

Our data shows that across graded programmes like BTECs, A Levels and resit GCSEs, your grade is strongly linked to your attendance. Resit attendance below 50 per cent pretty much guarantees failure, while 75 per cent plus guarantees that grade 4. For other programmes, attendance below 65 per cent almost guarantees failure, while 87 per cent most commonly gets you Distinction* or A*. In comparison, your prior GCSE grades are a much weaker predictor.

Historically, many studies have concluded a moderate to strong correlation between GCSE grades and future educational achievement, but these were from a pre-Covid era when the range of attendance figures was much narrower. Has post-Covid behaviour changed that dynamic and the best predictors?

If this is the case, it suggests attendance management is probably the most important improvement process. No surprise there. But it might also suggest the days of entry criteria might be numbered.

Very few students come out of school at 16 qualified below level 1, yet many colleges still have very significant volumes of level 1 programmes. This feels like a stifling of ambition. Every time our group has merged, the key success metric has been to raise the “curriculum centre of gravity” without stopping anyone from coming. This has involved a focus on progression and stopping stand-alone level 1 courses, in favour of level 2 as a starting point. We have generally moved from about 40 per cent to over 60 per cent of our students being on advanced programmes as a result. This generates better student destinations, and significantly reduces student unemployment.

There is a famous 1968 experiment where pupils were given an IQ test, but results were secretly, randomly assigned. Subsequent tests showed general improvement but those assigned as high performers improved the most, even if they were not high performers initially. They, and their teachers, lived up to the expectation in what is called the Pygmalion effect.

If we abandoned entry criteria, but simply told our students they were good enough to do the programme to which they applied, would they achieve in the same way? Are we brave enough to try?

The lesson from the grammar school and “creaming off” debate seems to be it leads to the non-selected under-performing. Maybe we should reflect on Eliza Doolittle’s lament on her famous educator:

“I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Are we setting up many students to live down to our expectations rather than giving them a shot at besting Eton?

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.