2020 Autumn Term 1

The know zone

  • Time for re-assessment
    The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many inequalities within the education system, further underlining the need for real change when it comes to primary evaluation, says Primary Specialist Tiffnie Harris. More
  • Parent planning
    Pay and Conditions Specialist Louise Hatswell explains maternity leave and other entitlements for parents-to-be working in the education sector. More
  • Contextualised offers
    Should more universities be giving disadvantaged students a lower offer? Kevin Gilmartin examines the inconsistent and complicated world of contextualised offers. More
  • Project restart
    Business Leadership Specialist Hayley Dunn highlights some of the key changes to reporting for academies and trusts, including resumption of data collections and greater transparency on executive pay. More
  • Words of wisdom
    We asked members to share a top tip for someone starting a new headship role this September and share a book recommendation that may help anyone new to the role. Here's what you said... More
  • A vote of confidence
    Assistant Head Rich Atterton says being on ASCL Council has enabled him to experience first-hand the Association's ability to shape and influence national education policy and debate. Here he shares his love for Council, teaching, escape rooms and... ballot paper. More
  • #TGIF
    The lack of discipline, general sense of ennui, the dreadful weather... and the fact that the weekend still seems an age away. Tell me why I don't like Thursday, asks Carl Smith. More
Bookmark and Share

Should more universities be giving disadvantaged students a lower offer? Kevin Gilmartin examines the inconsistent and complicated world of contextualised offers.

Contextualised offers

The start of the autumn term often reveals a level of panic among the new Year 13 students. Typically, because they suddenly realise they are now more than halfway through their A levels or applied generals. For many it is also because their UCAS deadline is now looming. Many will regret not having done more research about different university courses and entry requirements at the end of the summer term, but how many of the more disadvantaged students will consider contextualised admissions? Do they even know what they are? And would it make a difference to their university choices if they were clear about which universities might give them a lower offer because of their individual circumstances?

Why do we need contextualised offers?

Research from the Sutton Trust (https://tinyurl.com/y4n2ymj9) showed that in 2016, eight top schools had as many Oxbridge acceptances as another 2,894 schools and colleges across the UK put together. That is about three-quarters of all schools and colleges.

POLAR (participation of local areas) data (https:// tinyurl.com/y3rceysg), which measures neighbourhoods in terms of their higher education (HE) participation rates and that shows the rates for students from the lowest participation areas (typically the most disadvantaged areas), highlights that while the UK national average was 11%, the figure for the most selective universities was just 6%.

While the national situation may have improved slightly over the last couple of years, it does beg the question as to whether universities are really doing enough to encourage more disadvantaged students to apply to them? And, if they do apply, should they be given additional consideration when final decisions on places are made, including a lower offer?

What are contextualised offers and who gets them?

Four types of contextual indicators are commonly used to determine whether an applicant should get a contextualised offer: individual level, area level, school level, and outreach programme participation.

Of these four indicators, participation in a widening participation (WP) programme tends to be the most common indicator used, with two-thirds of selective universities reporting that they take this indicator into account.

Most of these universities who run WP programmes, linked to contextualised admissions, use ‘first in family to attend HE’ or ‘having been in care’ as their main indicators of contextual disadvantage. Many use POLAR data, but of course this sweeps up non-disadvantaged students who live in that postcode as well.

Only half use ‘in receipt of free school meals’ (FSM) and many consider it unfortunate that individual indicators such as FSM are the least commonly used. Unfortunate because the largest difference in A level results are found for students in this category – their results, on average, are one grade lower than for non-FSM students. For all other indicators, the differences are much smaller, sometimes just a quarter of a grade.

How could this be improved?

So why don’t universities focus on FSM data? It would seem straightforward enough for the UCAS application service to provide the information on FSM to universities, for example, a box on the UCAS form where students can tick yes or no if they are in receipt of FSM. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be that simple.

Pilot studies, where students had to self-identify for FSM, showed that many students answered this question incorrectly. Some were too embarrassed to self-identify, many were uncertain, some who weren’t eligible claimed they were receiving FSM in order to get a lower offer and a large number of boarding school students assumed that their school meals were indeed a free school meal.

However, the government actually holds this FSM information on its National Pupil Database (NPD) already. Universities, however, cannot access this information as it is data protected.

Given the lockdown-related concerns about the increasing attainment gap, contextualising admissions in this year’s application cycle is probably more important than ever. Perhaps a move to a post-qualification applications system may make it easier for universities to practice greater contextualisation in the future.

Meanwhile though, schools and colleges should make sure that their disadvantaged students are at least aware of contextualised admissions.

For their part, universities must publicise the criteria for contextual admissions clearly on their websites. Then perhaps we may be getting closer to a university system that is fairer to students from all backgrounds and to the schools and colleges who work so hard on their behalf.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist