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Sykes Slams State Schools

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Jun 03 2008 19:35

Sir Richard Sykes has slammed the state education system, as Imperial plans its own entrance exam due to "dumbing down".

Click Here for the Full Article

1. Ben   
Jun 03 2008 19:53

Being a tired old hack I was wondering if this has actually been approved yet? It would have to go through UG Admissions, Recruitment and Admission Policy and Senate at least... During 2006/07 it was mooted several times by several Admissions Tutors but nobody was really prepared to commit to it, and there was no consensus as to whether or not it was a good idea in the first place.

Having just read a related article on the BBC's website, I find it impossible to let this one pass without commenting on it. Referring to students in the state system, Sir Richard was quoted as saying that 'children in 93% of our schools... are just not getting the education they deserve'. This is astoundingly insulting, beyond belief. Sir Richard, having a scientist background, should know better than to make statements of ignorance on such universal scale. Although I'm no fan of Ofsted, but perhaps Sir Richard should go online and check out how many state schools are rated as 'outstanding' before sharing his senior moments with society.

3. So...   
Jun 04 2008 01:16

"testing creativity and general intelligence"

So does this mean the end of the RSM?

4. This post has been deleted.
Jun 04 2008 01:16
5. Ant   
Jun 04 2008 03:53

'Children in 93% of our schools... are just not getting the education they deserve'

Quite possibly true, there is a high likelihood that even in schools that are rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted at least one pupil is not being fully catered for with the education they deserve - be this either top end pupils not being stretched enough and provided with the opportunity for further learning beyond the factory curriculum, or those at the other ed of the spectrum who would benefit from having access to either more vocational type courses or one to one support

Personally however I?d agree with the need for more specialist papers/test to discern between candidates, after all several other universities have been making use of STEP maths papers and additional entrance exams for years, with very little controversy.

Jun 04 2008 09:22

Sancho, I can see why, as a state school teacher, you have a vested interest in people seeing state schools as being a good place to educate children as your job depends on it. However, I am not sure that "outstanding" reports from a government agency about an educational facility is a good measure. This government has harped on about "Education, education, education" and has, according to universities and employers, failed to deliver. By giving lots of schools "outstanding" reports the government can wave a flag saying that they are doing a good job and idiots will believe it.

I am not saying that you are not a good teacher, I don't know you and the kids you teach, but I do think your argument is weak.

Jun 04 2008 09:35

Here's the BBC article if you want to rant about that.

Jun 04 2008 09:36

Hi Ben,

Consensus seems to have been reached. Pretty much everyone is talking about it and I haven't heard much dissent. I don't remember it being formally passed at any stage though. Certainly not by UAC or RAPC.

Jun 04 2008 10:05

I think this is a good idea! I remember when I was at school a few years ago, my Physics teacher showed me a graph of the exams scores of the AQA Physics population, which was bimodal. About the top 2-3% achieved over 95% scores in the exams, whilst over 20% achieved an A. I believe universities are not allowed these statistics when choosing their students. I think it is only fair that the brightest students are given the chance to shine and gain places in top universities.

Jun 04 2008 10:17

I'm horrified by these comments! I'm wondering how many of the people slamming state schools have actually been one. I assume Sir Rich hasn't from his comments.

Frankly the state school education I recieved was the best thing I have so far (and am likely) to get for free in my life. I gained good enough grades to get into Imperial, and was obviously a good enough student to get an Imperial degree. On top of this however I thought I learnt other valuable lessons at my mixed sex, mixed 'social status' state which I think frankly gave me an advantage in many aspects. I noted by the end of my course that generally state school students had achieved higher grades - though obviously this is an unscientific subjective observation that I won't dwell on too much.

The state school I attended in my year was amongst the Top 500 in the country that year based on grades so isn't entirely typical, but I thought it did show the spread of grades you would expect from A-levels: out of about 100 students, 2 or 3 got straight A's, 7 or 8 mainly A's, about 20 got 1 A and other grades, 50-60 or so got Bs and Cs, whilst the rest got Cs, Ds and Es. As you would expect some of my friends went to top universities and are now economists/scientists/civil servants etc, many went to lesser universities and are dong good jobs now such as teaching, management, IT roles etc around the country, many are still in the local area performing similar jobs. As well as other leavers who are now police officers, nurses etc, and then obviously the complete spectrum of several other types of work. Thus the school seems to have provided for across the demands of the economy. Further though the academic ability of the students vary, there is a general theme amongst the former pupils of hard work, social responsibility, participation & teamwork, that make them beneficial to society as a whole - something I have sometimes observed to be missing from some privately schooled students (not the benefit to society bit, the bit before that!)

If all schools prodcued a spread of grades like that Imperials selection job would be easy. However they don't private schools make a mockery of the system, I have friends who attended private schools were 100% of students gained 3 A-C at A-level, here a sympthise with Imperials plight. Similarly it is worth noting that all state schools weren't as good as the one I attended and some I know in my home city barely 30% gain decent GCSEs never mind A-levels.

The solution therefore seems simple to me rank students as a percentile against their school because clearly someone from an average state school attaining 3 As is far more talented than a student gaining 3 As from a top public school, they would appear to me at least to have to be more self motivated in their work and understanding of a mixed social environment - the things you really need to succeed at university. And frankly anyone gaining an A-level from some of this countries slum schools should be given a university place, a medal and possibly a position in the house of lords.

Imperial obviously wouldn't want to do this though, as it is cheaper to take a guarennteed finished product, input very little investment and come out with a finished product - its the cheapest way to run an undergraduate programme, but probably not the best I would contend.

Finally as far entrance exams - it is well known that the Oxbridge entrance exams help eliminate state school students who schools do not have the chance to prepare them as much as private schools - I don't care if they test 'intelligence and creativity' everything can be prepared for - if you keep doing IQ tests your IQ will apparently go up, though I'm sure this doesn't indicate you are more intelligent!

Basically Sir Rich doesn't like British state schools (the british thing I seem to remember been a theme a few years ago) for whatever reason, and would like to create an elitist intellectual society where all the rich intelligent people can live away from all the dirty poor people who are stupid and thats why they're dirty and poor - sounds like Victorian politics to me. All I can say is welcome to the 20th century! NHS, state schools, minimum wage - these help create opportunity for all not a few scholarships at a private school - though who countries problems can't be solved by reading Oliver Twist for f**ks sake! Hopefully the next Rector will be able to take Imperial into the 21st century and the substantial challenges that holds,

Anyway enough of my ranting thesis I have work to do (obviously in a very good job as I am of course an Imperial graduate).

11. Will   
Jun 04 2008 10:40
Jun 04 2008 12:13

A Former State School Student - you appear to be doing the same thing you are criticising everyone else for doing. You too are making sweeping generalisations such as:

" clearly someone from an average state school attaining 3 As is far more talented than a student gaining 3 As from a top public school". How can you say that? The person getting 3 A's at either school could be just as capable getting 3 A's in the other school;

"there is a general theme amongst the former pupils of hard work, social responsibility, participation & teamwork, that make them beneficial to society as a whole - something I have sometimes observed to be missing from some privately schooled students" the same can be said the other way round, I have observed the same characteristics in Privately educated persons just as much as I have in state educated persons;

"mixed sex, mixed 'social status' state " - many Private schools offer this too you know? At mine (admitidly not in England) we had more people in assisted/ full scholarships than were full fee paying. Many "full fee payers" were actually paid for by companies/ MOD not by "rich" parents;

"the school seems to have provided for across the demands of the economy" So did mine, I have friends that left school and joined the armed services, police, medical profession, are in IT and HR roles as well as solicitors, doctors etc.

I could go on, but like you, I have work to do.

Oh, and perhaps to give you an idea of my background, I did not do A levels, I am married to a state school IC graduate, my dad's employer paid for my education. Oh, and I went to an English state school before moving to a private school in the north. The main difference between the two that I found? The range of extra curricular activities available (in particular the CCF) was much greater at the private school which I believe helped me become the more rounded individual that I am and the pupils seemed to want to learn so there were very few distractions from those people who did not want to be at school.

Finally, reading all articles it appears that, as usual the A-levels themselves are the problem, not the schools.

Jun 04 2008 13:04

A-levels are easy. I got 4 of them with top grades. I don't think my public school really helped (there are about a million better state schools in the league tables). None of the teachers had even heard of Imperial (they were all Oxbridge arts grads or pretentious durham types) so filling my UCAS application form was amusing and they only paid attention to the Oxbridge and Bristol slots on my form... only one teacher in the whole school even knew what Engineering was. I think even the Physics PhD teacher thought it was fixing cars. If Imperial offered me that test to sit back in 2003/4, I probably would have failed it due to the fact that I wouldn't have had any help preparing for it unless it had Oxbridge/Durham/Bristol stamped on the top.

My Imperial offer was only 3 B's back in the day, and when I got here nearly everyone had A's anyway. I now feel like a Joe Average at Imperial and felt even more stupid getting here without further further further maths.

Curiously, some of the people in my year who are achieving firsts didn't necessarily have 'good' a-levels (by imperial standards). I think it's all to do with passion for your subject which I have had hammered out of me in the past 3.75 years and others... obviously haven't.

I'm sure that if I actually cared/was interested about some of the rubbish they teach us on our course I would be doing a lot better.

So all in all, maybe they should test how interested you are... maybe make you read a few of the text books and see if you cry with boredom... (then you can decide for yourself if you like the imperial style of 'teaching'... self discriminatory type admission).

Also will people stop going on about this public school stuff. No one cares. I went to one. Here, I think I talk to only 1 public school person on a weekly basis. 3 others were privately educated people. and the rest are all state/grammars or overseas or I have no knowledge they went to a public school. (lets not forget that at imperial you're not allowed have friends).

14. Pah   
Jun 04 2008 13:54

They are called Grammar Schools and they work. What doesn't work is the lower boundaries of A-levels - everyone in first year at Imperial probably have three As in a-level. So either extra cirricular activities or harder a-levels are needed to distinguish - the problem is not teaching.

Jun 04 2008 17:46

Imperial selects the best students from its applicants - and for good reason. It does not select them based on their background. It so happens that the best students happen to be educated privately, and it doesn't take an independently educated student to realise why. Whether or not this is fair to everyone in the country is another topic entirely to the one your discussing, and is the only valid one.

To suggest that we take on the top percentile of each school is simply bonkers. That would leave us with 80 percent of students from state schools - 40% of them would be valid applicants, the other 40% of them would be from the state schools which you clearly haven't seen - the ones where everyone carries a knife and their father is a drug dealer and rapes his wife every night. They may be the best in their school, but their school isn't worth s**t and they can't even do basic algebra.

However, now I think about this system it may work - These "people" begat from the woman high on coke on a street corner wearing red, would fail/drop out/be kicked out after 3 weeks and my lecture theatre wouldn't be so cramped, I would statistiaclly be more likely to oget a leather sofa in the JCR at lunch.

16. ???   
Jun 04 2008 17:48

Are you people suggesting that Imperial takes an equal share of students based on their educational status. I.e. we take 50% state educated students and 50% private.

This is ridiculous. You may as well say we have to take 50% girls - in fact, that is a better suggestion.

Jun 04 2008 18:06

at post 15

Are you suggesting that somebody who got four A grades at A level, but went to a school where they were 15 to a class, and had all kinds of private tuition and help, would cope better than somebody who achieved AAB but coming from a school where you were basically on your own when they are put on an equal footing at university? The point that is being made is that somebody from private school is almost guaranteed to do well for reasons other than intelligence, whereas somebody from a crummy state school would have shown more ambition and drive to do well.

Jun 04 2008 18:16

I never let schooling interfere with my education! If the Rector wants to have entrance exams then thats his choice and a good one as well methinks. But slagging off state schools seems totally redundant to the point he is trying to make.

Jun 04 2008 20:54

Andrew Holland makes an interesting point and I fully agree. The easiest way would be to look at an applicant then look at the school compare there grades with the average.

In an average school say an individual comes out with 3 Bs then if an applicant applies with 3As of AAB then that individual is above average and is accepted.

In a top public school where the average grades is AAA then if some one applies with three AAAs then the can be subjected to further testing or interviews.

In other words what Andrew has said is right the top state school pupils will have already had to jump through many hoops. The averge public school pupil won't have so give them a few.

Jun 04 2008 22:58


You do have an interesting point and it is one worth taking on board. But you are admitting that those educated in state schools are not as clever. They may be able to learn in a large environment better than someone who has had a higher staff student ratio. But they are not as well prepared for the content they are to learn at Uni. How well would you have done in first year had you only got a B in maths?

Jun 05 2008 00:10

You seem to be slightly angry, but maybe you could calm down and think rationally. Of course you can't either way generalise but I would argue that many of the most exceptional - not merely very good - students at Imperial come from those "s**t" schools because they have had to think for themselves rather than be spoon fed and tutored to pass exams.

But the real argument here shouldn't be over whether or not state school pupils are better than those from independent schools but whether or not an entry exam is actually of any use. While the College will obviously argue that they are so fiendishly clever they can devise an exam which can't be tutored for, this is bollocks. Good independent schools will ensure that any student applying to Imperial knows exactly what to expect from the exam and how to pass it - state schools just don't have the resources to do that.

This already happens in medicine with MSAT - it's very easy to find stories to back this up, from pupils getting additional lessons every week to schools where not a single teacher knows what MSAT is. Interestingly enough Imperial has been using MSAT for three years (if you count the 2008 entry) so it would be useful to know what difference it has made to the educational background profile of the department. Anybody have the figures to hand?

22. Seb   
Jun 05 2008 01:18


I think it is less the resources that allow the kind of specialisation you are talking about, and more the fact that independent schools don't have the secretary of state for education screwing with their priorities.

However pressed for time they may be, the no 1 priority that an independent school is aiming for is to get as many kids into the best university they can, because that is the aim of the parents and the board of governors. It's where they get their money from, and their reputation.

Preparing their pupils for university entry is not some extra luxury they tack on at the end thanks to smaller class sizes, if they have time between marking and box ticking. It's critical for the schools success and they make time for it.

Parents are not happy that little Johny knows all about the ancient greek states to a far greater degree than the A-level history sylabus requires if his UCAS personal statement reads like the rambling of a drugged horse and he has a nervous panic in his oxbridge interview, leaving him in clearance. That is not what they are paying umpteen K a year for. University entrance first, really understanding and knowing the subjects they are studying at A-level, and proficiency in musical instruments is something to be had on the side.

The undoubted extra resources that independent schools have goes on the extra curricular stuff and slightly broader teaching in a given subject, but only after they have taught what the kids need to score highly in A-levels.

As long as state school system continues to have different priorities determined by the latest micromanaging minister with delusions of grandeur; pet theories on education; a belief that the purpose of public education policy is social engineering and the promotion of Goverment policy; then that disparity will continue to exist.

Whether any of this has much to do with the classical enlightenement concept of education is another discussion.

Jun 05 2008 06:38

@ stupid communists

You are defining "cleverness" in terms on A level results, which I believe is wrong. Also, despite what many of the newspapers tried to portray, Imperial will still be using A levels, and an A in Maths is neccessary for many of the courses at Imperial, so that is not likely to change. I can only talk for my department (Chem Eng) on this, but I found that my other two A levels (Physics and Chemistry) were not really used in my course beyond A level standard, so it would not matter if you had an A or B in them.

Jun 05 2008 15:21

There is a gross inequality between state schools. Whether it is between selective (faith and grammar) and non-selective, it is worrying that geography and a parent's faith still will define the type of education you get. As long as these inequalities exist, then people will generalise about a certain group in order to make sense of these inequalities.

However, saying all of this, I went to a non-grammar state school that had catchment within the roughest inner city parts alongside suburbia. It is fair to say that those who were from suburbia were in general better at school than those from the inner city. Thus Stupidist Communist made the horrible generalisation that it is because they were from "degenerate" families. How about he stops watching Jeremy Kyle and inferring that these are representative of the working class as a whole.

The truth is (and in some ways Sykes nearly gets there) social mobility has not advanced much, if at all in the past couple of decades as shown by the LSE report supported by the Sutton Trust. Education is one part of the puzzle. It is not far from the truth to say that the poorer parts of society's self-esteem is low, which does little to motivate social mobility.

However, within this sea of inequality, it makes the exceptions truly exceptional as Andrew Holland points to. I think enthusiasm and potential are a great indicator of talent, and both of these come from wanting something more than others. It is far more natural for a privileged person to end up at university and if they are talented enough then that's fine. However, it is far harder for someone in poverty to get there (and top-up fees don't help), and if they do get there, it is because they want it more. And you'll find that if they want it more, they are willing to work harder for it.

I have seen people work their a**es off for an A in physics A-level because there teacher is not a physics graduate from a good uni (as you'd be more likely to get in an independent school). Those people wanted it, so much so that they had to effectively teach themselves the course. That s**ts all over my A taught to me by a good teacher.

The idea that we have an inate inequality in natural talent is actually a pretty dodgy one (even if you read Pinker's Blank Slate). Environment pretty much does the defining, and school is just a part of this. I think a far more telling statistic would be to ask how many of current Imperial undergrads have parents who are graduates. It would highlight how little social mobility there is.

Jun 05 2008 15:24

And me using "there" instead of "their" just reflects my "inferior" education.

26. Bob   
Jun 06 2008 17:31

Matty, I love you and want to have your socialist children, and live in a land of rainbows and sunshine where everyone is nice to each other.

Jun 07 2008 10:15

I think Matty is quite right. I may have gone to a state school but I was lucky enough to go to a really good one. I'm also the youngest in a family in which everyone has a degree. If I'd gone to some of the worse schools, with a family in which no one had been to university it would say much more about my enthusiasm for learning to get the grades I did get.

28. Chris   
Jun 07 2008 14:48

I guess you're all engineers here. Well I'm from the Life Sci department, and I got 5 As at A Level so I think I can say that (get ready for it) A Levels were harder than my first year exams!! I got a first and I did no work, compare that to how hard I worked for my further maths A level! I mean in our course we basically did AS Bio, AS Chem and GCSE Maths for the first term... So we would have a situation where the entrance exam is harder than A levels and thus harder than the degree itself... Also doing well would probably guarantee you entry to any non-Oxbridge in the country.

Jun 08 2008 16:57

"in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes." - So says Dr Bruce Charlton.

He's probably right, to the extent that IQ is heritable (about 0.5) and better-off parents tend to be more intelligent than poor ones.

Jun 11 2008 00:11

The boss:

Or maybe it's because poor people can't afford the ridiculous costs associated with going to university? Or perhaps they are dissuaded by the fact that they'll have a huge debt when they leave? Or maybe they can't afford to live in the areas that are lucky enough to have a good state school nearby?

You are not naturally born with a high IQ - it gets higher with practice. Rich people can afford private schools with tiny class sizes and PhD teachers. Poor people get a c**ppy inner city comprehensive full of disruptive chavs.

It may be a statistical fact that lower social classes have a lower average IQ, but it's because they can't afford (on average) to get a higher IQ, not because they inherited a stupid gene from their parents.

Jun 13 2008 13:40

I wouldn't worry about that Bruce Charlton guy. He has been wildly discredited for fundamentally bad science in the community. He infers far too much from limited data and is guilty of the worse kind of spurious reasoning. Give him 5 years and he'll be trying to 'scientifically' prove that Enoch Powell was right about everything.

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