Grade discount plea for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

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Disadvantaged pupils who secure a place at medical school with lower A level grades go on to do at least as well as their peers from top performing schools, new research has found, prompting calls for ‘grade discounts’ to be introduced.

The study, led by academics at the University of York, looked at the attainment of pupils who enrolled on medical degrees from the country’s best and worst performing secondaries.

Disadvantaged pupils from poorly performing schools, even those who matched the top A level grades achieved by those from the best schools, went on to do better academically, it found.

The research, published today, comes as Oxford University faces criticism for failing to open up places to students from diverse backgrounds, with just 11 per cent of its undergraduates coming from disadvantaged areas.

While some universities such as Birmingham and Kings College London have already trialled grade discounting, the authors of the report are calling for medical school entry criteria to be relaxed for all pupils applying from low-performing schools.

“This study suggests that relaxing A Level grade entry requirements for students from the worst performing secondary schools is beneficial,” said Lazaro Mwandigha, lead author from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York. “Although there are important further questions about how to fairly classify schools, the study demonstrates that these students are, on average, just as able to keep up with the pace of a medical degree.”

The study, carried out with partners at the Universities of Dundee and Durham, analysed data from UK medical degree courses and the Department for Education.

There is fierce competition to study medicine in the UK, the university has said, with an average of 11 to 12 applications per place offered and an expectation that students will achieve the highest grades. And, despite just five per cent of children in the UK going to private school, half of medical degree places are filled by students who attended selective schools.

Supervising author Dr Paul Tiffin said the study provided robust evidence that grade discounting is justified, adding that widening access to medical degrees would benefit the UK’s health services.

“At the moment around 20 per cent of UK schools are providing 80 per cent of our medical students so A Level achievement should be viewed in terms of the context in which a pupil learns in order to help increase fairness and widen participation in medicine,” he said. “The NHS needs more doctors from under-represented minority groups. Having doctors from a wider range of backgrounds would enable health professionals to better understand and meet the UK’s diverse healthcare needs.”

Clare Owen, assistant director of the Medical Schools Council, said the research was significant.

“The Medical Schools Council recognises the benefits of admissions which take applicants’ backgrounds into account and this year published a guide which collects together the best practice of medical schools as they implement contextual admissions,” she said. “Each medical school must decide on the best approach for its circumstances and this research will help them by making a significant contribution to the evidence base.”

The research comes as Oxford University faces criticism over diversity, with just 11 per cent of undergraduates from disadvantaged areas, and 18 per cent identifying as black or ethnic minority. This is an improved picture from 2013, when those figures were 7 per cent and 14 per cent respectively, but Labour MP David Lammy has criticised progress as “glacial”.

“The truth is that Oxford is still a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, as Samina Khan, director of undergraduate admissions, said the university was working hard to change, doubling its UNIQ spring and summer schools.