2019 Autumn Term 1

The know zone

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    One senior politician has suggested that SATs should be 'scrapped'. Here Primary Specialist Tiffnie Harris highlights ASCL's position on this important issue. More
  • University challenge
    As the new term begins and students start their UCAS applications, Kevin Gilmartin looks at the university choices of this year's freshers. More
  • Balance the facts and the figures
    Business Leadership Specialist Hayley Dunn shares top tips on setting pay and conditions for school business leadership roles. More
  • Just the job?
    ASCL Pay and Conditions Specialist Louise Hatswell shares advice on how to avoid any pitfalls when changing jobs and moving to another school. More
  • Listen up...
    We asked our members what advice they would give to someone starting in their first leadership role and one word featured in most responses - 'listen'. Here, ASCL members share their thoughts... More
  • Providing an alternative perspective
    Executive Headteacher John Bradshaw is the new voice of ASCL Council elected to represent Alternative Provision (AP) in education. More
  • Mark my words
    Rather than playing with fire, play it safe and change your language to fit your audience. More
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As the new term begins and students start their UCAS applications, Kevin Gilmartin looks at the university choices of this year’s freshers.

University challenge

For last years’ leavers, school or college may already seem like a distant memory and, for many of them, university beckons. But are their destinations, subject choices and aspirations significantly different from previous cohorts of students?

The evidence 

UCAS produces reports that analyse patterns of applications, offers and acceptances (www.ucas.com/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports). Sometimes it is the quirky headlines that stand out; for example, this year more students from China applied for undergraduate courses than from Northern Ireland. And perhaps the alternatives to undergraduate study are finally gaining some traction with a quarter of students expressing an interest in apprenticeships as an alternative option.

In addition, ASCL preferred supplier Unifrog has published interesting research based on its analysis of what has motivated students to make their choices (http://bit.ly/unifriogascl). For example, qualifications are unsurprisingly the single most important factor – we know this because the most-clicked ‘ranking’ factor on the Unifrog platform was ‘university entry requirements’ (as opposed to ‘uni social life’ or ‘student satisfaction’). More students are also catching on to the idea of a ‘stretch’ application, that is, where the course tariff is above their predicted grades. Stretch applications have increased by 10% since 2017 as students become aware that more selective universities are lowering their grade thresholds once results are out.

Most popular courses

This may be the most surprising finding of all – for years, psychology, law and medicine have usually occupied the top three popularity slots but now, however, Unifrog reports that ‘liberal arts’ and ‘liberal arts and sciences’ have suddenly appeared in the top ten most shortlisted courses. Even more surprising is that ‘liberal arts’ is predicted to be the number one shortlisted course choice for September 2020 starts. Perhaps there is a realisation of the changing nature of many professions, for example, the way that AI is transforming the legal profession. Nearly every job that graduates now enter requires some combination of science and non-science components. On the other hand, of course, one wonders whether this move to study more broadly at university could be a reaction to students’ present experience of a narrower, linear A level curriculum?

The gender gap?

Traditionally, the proportion of girls going to university has increased more quickly than boys with girls now 37% more likely to enter HE. Unifrog trends show 79% of girls created a university shortlist, compared to 73% of boys. A higher proportion of girls also shortlisted Russell Group universities and stretch courses. The exception is Oxbridge, where a slightly higher percentage of boys shortlisted opportunities. In contrast, boys were far more likely to shortlist degree level apprenticeships than girls (30% versus 23%).

Disadvantaged students

Students from independent schools have always been more likely to attend the most selective universities and Unifrog’s data shows that only 5% of students from the lowest participation areas go to the most selective universities. A highly pertinent question then is: How far is this driven by students’ application behaviour? And, how far is it driven by their attainment? By looking only at students who were predicted BBB+ at A level, Unifrog’s data suggests that independent school students are about 12% more likely to shortlist at least one Russell Group university than state school students.

Students from lowparticipation areas are the least likely to shortlist a Russell Group university, with 75% compared to 79% of all state school students. This gap is even more pronounced when looking at the highest achievers’ attitudes to Oxbridge. Of students predicted AAA+ at A level, students from independent schools were much more likely than state school students to shortlist Oxbridge (50% versus 32%). Most strikingly, three-quarters of AAA+ students from low-participation areas do not even shortlist an Oxbridge college, suggesting that they do not think this is ‘for them’.

Top 5 tips for teachers and advisers

 1. Students are demonstrating increasingly aspirational behaviours reflecting the increased likelihood of getting in with slightly lower grades – you can encourage more of this behaviour.

 2. Girls show a higher overall interest in entering HE and are more ambitious with their choices – you can help raise boys’ ambitions.

 3. Low-participation background students are increasingly applying to university but not to the more selective institutions – you can help raise overall ambitions.

 4. Only 26% of higher attaining disadvantaged students shortlist Oxbridge, compared to 50% independent – you can encourage more applications.

 5. Students are increasingly applying for less traditional subjects – you can familiarise yourself more with these.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist