University destinations – the ultimate school performance measure?
The questions prospective parents ask shed some light on how they judge schools. Inevitably I get lots of questions about public exam results, value-added measures which compare pupils’ attainment on leaving to their base level ability on arrival, and university destinations. For some prospective parents university destinations are the key ‘catch all’ measure of school performance because a successful university application is the product of a variety of factors including strong I/GCSE and A level/Pre U results, relevant work experience, good application and interview techniques, and well developed skills such as communication, team work, problem solving and independent research. Given all of the above, it is no surprise that many prospective parents are keen to know how many Perseans progress to Oxbridge, Russell Group universities, and top higher education institutions around the world.
The problem with using university destinations as a measure of school success, is that there is no absolute best university. There is much hackneyed, ‘usual suspects’ thinking about university quality which usually places Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial College London, and LSE at the top of a perceived university hierarchy. These are excellent universities and may well be the best option for some students in some courses, but they are not the best option for everybody. What constitutes ‘best’ will vary from student to student with different weighting attached to quality of undergraduate teaching, pastoral care, accommodation, extra-curricular opportunities, course content and structure, methods of assessment, graduate employment and research activity, to name but a few considerations. What matters is that students are successful in gaining places on the right courses at the best universities for them.
University success is relative not absolute.
The Perse is an academic school in a university city. As such, there is always considerable interest in our Oxbridge offer statistics. In 2016, Perse pupils secured 42 Oxbridge offers, in 2017, 51 and in 2018, 39. This is significantly more than any other independent school in the region, and numbers do go up and down depending on the academic strengths of year groups, the number of students who chose to apply to Oxbridge and the subjects they apply for. The final factor is a very important control as success rates vary greatly between subjects such that at Oxford only 6% of economics and management applications receive offers, whilst in classics there is a 40% offer rate. In Cambridge, success rates vary from 48.8% for classics down to 8.6% for architecture.
In reviewing our university data, prospective parents often ask about perceived university bias against independent school pupils. With many university academics, including admissions tutors, as Perse parents we have a good understanding of the university admissions process. What selecting universities admission tutors are biased towards is academic ability. They are strongly meritocratic, and whilst they will factor an applicant’s background into their decision-making process (as The Perse does for entry to the school), they are not biased for or against school types. This is borne out by the percentage success rates for school/college type. At Cambridge, the overall applicant success rate is 23.9%, but for independent school pupils it rises to 28.7%.
The world of university is changing and with increasing tuition and maintenance costs, some students are questioning whether a university education is right for them. They are looking at apprenticeships and entry-level jobs with good employers that combine paid employment with excellent training and mean students will not start their working lives with significant debts.
Post-school destination data is a meaningful measure of school performance, but only in its broadest sense. What matters is that students have been supported, advised and prepared such that they make successful applications to the university or employer that will be best for them. Success is relative not absolute, and should be measured by asking students if they got what they wanted, not by counting up the number of offers from universities that are perceived to be at the top of a higher education hierarchy.
Top tips – for those students who want to apply to university, divide application thinking up into 3 stages:
- What subject do I wish to study? If it is a new subject, not previously studied at school, do I know enough about it to make a considered choice?
- Which course in that subject suits me best in terms of content, teaching styles, methods of assessment, options etc.
- Of the universities which offer suitable course/subjects for me, which will work best in terms of location, graduate employment, pastoral care, type – campus or city, friends, extra curricular opportunities, cost of living etc?
It is important that students move sequentially from 1-3 in their thinking. Don’t start at 3 and work backwards.