Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Judging the OFFA controversy

So, the Select Committee has tried to veto Les Ebdon, and Vince Cable has stood by his man. I call this a straight knock-down-drag-out win to Vince and Les. First there is the straightforward matter of the outcome - the Select Committee can't actually prevent Vince from appointing the Director he wants provided the Minister holds his nerve, which clearly he has done in this case. But secondly (and this must have helped the Minister over the last couple of days as this was debated within Government), there is the sheer cack-handedness with which the Committee has acted.

Here are the key phrases from the Committee's report:

While he demonstrated an all-round understanding of widening participation, we were not convinced by Professor Ebdon's descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities. Therefore, we have to question his evidence in respect of two of the criteria for selection, namely "promote the strengths of the arguments in face of opposition" and "communicate persuasively and publicly, with excellent presentational stills". We are unable to endorse the appointment of Professor Ebdon as the Director of OFFA and we recommend that the Department conduct a new recruitment exercise.
 And here is the relevant section of the transcript from their evidence session:

Q47 Margot James: You mentioned that there was a lack of a decent evidence base for the barriers to access. I do not know whether you have had a chance to review some of the evidence that was presented to this Committee last year when we reviewed the subject. Based on what you know yourself and what you might have read of our hearings last year, what do you think are the main reasons for the differential between access to Russell Group universities and access to the other universities over the last 10 years?
Professor Ebdon: The biggest difference seems to be the application rate. If students apply to selective universities, admission seems to be independent of their background at that stage. Therefore, the issue is clearly encouraging more students to apply to those universities. From my own personal experience-and I accept it is largely anecdotal from talking to students-they do not see themselves as being part of that community. They do not see those universities as for them, and that seems to me to be the biggest challenge. It may be as simple as, "If you do an interview, make sure you do not do it in a baronial hall; do it in a friendlier atmosphere." Certainly, my mantra is that it is important to make a university feel as welcoming and as friendly as possible to encourage applicants. So I think getting people to consider it a possibility and to aspire to go to such universities is probably their biggest challenge.
Q48 Margot James: Yes, I accept that point, but I am surprised you do not mention schools and the choice of subjects in a lot of comprehensive schools. In fact, only this week I have heard Professor Alison Wolf, who conducted that major report into vocational education last year, confirm that there was an increasing bias towards vocational equivalent subjects at GCSE, the abandonment of foreign languages, and the preference among a lot of comprehensive schools for just taking a single science at GCSE. All of those problems seemed, to a number of witnesses that we heard from last year, to be a major stumbling clock. If children are not taking the sorts of GCSEs that lead to the sorts of A-Levels that the Russell Group accept, surely that is an even more important factor than the one you mentioned, which I do take seriously-that a lot of students from those backgrounds feel that the Russell Group universities are "not for them".
Professor Ebdon: The point is well made and acknowledged. Indeed, the National Council for Educational Excellence, on which I served, does point out the very strong statistical connection between taking three sciences at GCSE and progressing to science subjects at university. Indeed, I gave evidence a couple of weeks ago to another House of Lords inquiry about European Union modernisation in our education, and I drew attention to the challenges from the drop in the number of young people taking languages in schools. So I acknowledge that.
I would also have to say that universities have to deal with the world as it is rather than the world that we would want. Maybe the challenge for universities then is to say, "Given this issue of students coming forward with a different background from the one that maybe we had intended when we set up this course, is there anything we can do to equalise levels?" This was something I was saying came up very strongly in another House of Lords inquiry that I was involved in, and I think it is significant.
I do not think universities can just say, "Oh well, it is because they are doing the wrong GCSEs." We have to say, "Is there anything we can do, as universities, to influence schools and interact with schools?" We should plead guilty to the fact that we have not done enough in terms of saying, "These are the aspects of mathematics that we need to be in the school curriculum." I think we have abdicated from that responsibility and we should take it more seriously. We also need to interact with schools more closely and explain what it is that we are looking for, and just putting it on a website, which most of us do, is not enough. Thirdly, I think we need to explore more to see whether that is really an insuperable barrier or whether we are being insufficiently flexible about entry.
Q49 Margot James:GCSE choices for their later university prospects?
Professor Ebdon: It is very helpful. Clearly, supply chain issues are very serious ones and ones that the Director of OFFA has to take seriously. We will not change things overnight, because we have to work back down the line, and I would very much welcome any action that alerts schools to these issues. Even better, of course, is a dialogue with schools to try to find out why it is they have taken the decisions they have, and I hear responses from the schools that they are influenced by league tables. We really need to find out what it is, because these are major obstacles and you are quite right in identifying them as such.

So the Committee says that students' GCSE and A-level choices are a 'root cause of the obstacle', whereas Les Ebdon says that universities can perfectly well teach that curriculum themselves if they want to. Quite literally, their objection is that Prof Ebdon is better informed than they are.

So a poorly-executed political ambush which seems to have failed in its objectives. Not a great day for the Select Committee.

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