Russell Group Offers – Hype and Reality

Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College writes

Comprehensive sixth form college: 162

Selective 16-19 free school: 100

I wrote elsewhere about the misleading use of Russell group offer data to demonstrate the impact of a new 16-19 free school in our area. The fact that 100 students from the highly selective London Academy of Excellence had at least one Russell group offer was seen by some as a triumph worthy of national press coverage.

While not wishing in any way to minimise this achievement, I pointed out that in the previous year, 137 students from Newham sixth form college (NewVIc) had Russell group offers and that 60 of these had subsequently progressed to Russell group institutions, a big improvement on the previous year.

We now have the data for this year and can compare like with like. With only 4 applicants still to hear about potential Russell group offers, 162 NewVIc applicants have one or more Russell group offers, a further increase on last year. Overall, 226 Russell group offers have been made to NewVIc students.

It has not been our choice to engage in a competition about offer numbers and we have never done this before, but if new post-16 providers are going to use offer numbers to claim success, it seems only fair for existing providers to do the same. Our mission is broad and comprehensive and we don’t regard Russell group numbers as the key measure of our students’ success but we do recognise that historic progression rates to the more selective universities have been lower than average in our borough despite very high progression rates to university overall. We want our students to benefit from the full range of university opportunities available and our Honours programme has been very successful in increasing the number of students progressing to more selective universities in an increasingly competitive HE market.

We try not to refer to Russell group universities as “best”, “top” or “elite”. They are brilliant places to study, but so are many other universities. These are simply among the more selective on average and we are increasingly successful in getting students to progress to them.

So perhaps we can tone down the hype and try to avoid making outlandish claims. Instead, let’s celebrate the achievements of all students as well as the fact that different kinds of sixth form providers are making their contribution to an increase in progression to the most selective universities. But please…don’t ignore the contribution of established and comprehensive sixth form colleges like ours.

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One Comment on “Russell Group Offers – Hype and Reality”

  1. David Pavett says:

    For me Eddie’s comments raise two key questions and they are both about selection and elitism.

    So long as we accept that schools can and should be ranked against each other and that parents have a right to select the higher ranking schools then educational elitism will continue to dominate the school scene.

    So long as we accept that universties should be ranked against each other and that how many students schools get into the highest ranking universities is a measure of school success then we remain completely locked into a hierarchical and elitist framework for education at secondary and university level.

    It is not that I do not accept the need for ranking of performance. If I ever need brain surgery I want the person who does it to be a member of a medical elite (i.e. a brain surgeon). But such rankings for membership of various elites should be on the basis of individual performance. Institutional elitism is quite another thing. It means that people who have no particular outstanding qualities get the pass into one or another elitist clubs just by virtue of having obtained their qualifications from an elite institution. That is something which I think that socialists should strongly oppose.

    Labour Party discourse is full of this implicit acceptance of institutional hierarchies.

    I agree with Eddie that we should look at the brilliant opportunities offered by universities that don’t make the top of the ranking list. In fact we need to do more. We need to evaluate universities on our own criteria and forget the international university rankings. What is the quality of the education, student satisfaction, inclusiveness, job placements, value added and many other things. To accept current discourse about ‘top universities’ is to accept a whole package of class society. Socialists should have a rather different approach to evaluation.