Contextual Data Ucas Personal Statement

According to the Office for Fair Access’ 2014 report, the most advantaged 20% of young people are still over six times more likely to attend a selective institution than the most disadvantaged 40%. And, as universities increase their A-level tariffs, some argue that the situation is likely to get worse. In last week’s education Guardian, professor Patrick McGhee argued that universities should consider a student’s background when making admissions decisions. Here’s the reaction from university staff:

Patrick Fullick, education consultant and former director of teacher training and master’s degree programmes at the University of Southampton

Universities already make use of contextual data for admissions, but they do so in the very worst way. Through the personal statement, applicants from advantaged backgrounds are given free rein to play the system by supplying exactly the kind of information that selectors are looking for: from work experience to involvement in clubs and societies.

Of course university tutors are able to see what external factors might affect an application, but unless they have access to the correct information, these interpretations could be called into question. Such admission decisions might be hard to defend if subject to challenge in a legal setting.

Placing aspiring university applicants on a map (both literal and metaphorical) that enables fair decisions to be made about their potential would liberate university selectors from the excruciating job of reading between the lines. It would also mean that academics could defend their decisions where they had considered a student’s background.

In an age when big data rules, the development of data sets relating to university applications is not something that presents an insuperable challenge.

Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham. He was formerly pro vice-chancellor at Middlesex University

I was born into a working-class family in Hackney: my mother was a housewife and my father earned a subsistence wage as a packer in a Stepney warehouse. There was always food on the table but I was made aware from an early age that the Alderman household was severely “cash-limited”.

Aged 11, I won a place at the local grammar school and, six years later, made the leap of a lifetime when my headmaster suggested I sat the Oxford history entrance exams. I spent a week there, writing exams and being interviewed. The interviews, incidentally, were far more searching than the exams: I had to defend my opinions and answer, on the spot, probing questions on a wide range of subjects, not confined to history.

Many years later I asked one of my tutors whether what would now be called “context” had played any part in the decision to admit me. He was appalled. I had entered a competitive examination and had won my place. Had this place been offered – let’s say – in spite of inadequate exam results, through some compensatory fiat of social engineering, I would also have been appalled. And deeply insulted.

Over the decades I’ve interviewed hundreds of students, and occasionally I’ve persuaded colleagues to admit them in spite of poor A-levels, based on my professional judgment of their intellectual capabilities. I’ve never been proved wrong. But I’ve never considered social context. Social engineering may well be a public good. But it’s inherently discriminatory (it necessarily penalises students from certain socio-economic backgrounds) and – therefore – has no place in any university that claims to prioritise academic excellence.

Fiona Elsted, lecturer and departmental employability development director at the University of Essex

Imagine the following scenario: Zoe is a bright and articulate 11 year old living with both her parents who, due to illness, have been unable to find paid work for much of her life. Her school has a high percentage of pupils who, like her, are eligible for free school meals. It has no sixth form.

If Zoe does apply to university she will have some formidable competition: other applicants will have attended a school with an “outstanding” Ofsted rating, enjoyed a comfortable home life and have parents with degrees. Undoubtedly, those students will deserve the good A-level grades they achieve but Zoe’s slightly lower grades (A-levels, unless advice is poor) will be hard won and unlikely to reflect her future potential. You could expect more growth in a student like Zoe, but the grades are a barrier.

This is where the use of contextual data comes into its own. Taking into account factors such as postcode, school attended and socio-economic group, admissions teams can make a holistic assessment of applications. Then a decision may be taken as to whether or not to make a ‘contextual offer’. This means Zoe’s achievements so far are noted, but so too is her future potential.

It’s not like anything sneaky is going on here: it is simply a way of supporting students to gain a place at a well-respected university. Less disadvantaged students receive support in this too. They benefit from “higher-quality” teaching; parents with degrees themselves; stability at home and teaching staff who can guide the application process to make sure the personal statement stands out. For these clear advantages, and outside help, we do not penalise an applicant; yet for the lack of advantage we frequently do. Contextual data could level the playing field.

There’s a bit of a gamble involved but so far Supporting Professionalism in Applications (SPA), a body that provides advice on admissions issues, has found that those to whom contextual offers were made have not disappointed but have instead achieved more than satisfactory grades and managed their courses well.

Professor Stephen Gorard, school of education, Durham University

Allowing institutions to make subjective judgements on the basis of an individual’s context won’t make the system any better.

Contextual data was used in crucial policy-making decisions at school level in England from 2002-10, in the form of contextualised value-added progress calculations. The results informed inspections, school closures and mergers, and school and departmental improvement approaches. In contextual value added data (CVA), the background characteristics of pupils were used to help predict their later qualifications, and so decide whether an individual had done better or worse than expected. It was a complete failure, relying only on visible and available indicators, and highly sensitive to tiny variations in measures.

One of the biggest issues was missing data: a problem we still encounter today. Currently it is not known whether around 4% of pupils in state schools are eligible for free school meals (FSM) or not. In reality, these pupils are more deprived on average than FSM-eligible pupils are. But the schools taking them not only had harder-to teach pupils, they had worse CVA, and receive no pupil premium funding for them because officially the data is missing.

If FSM were used as context in higher education admissions the same kinds of unfairness would happen. Every year around 11% of school pupils have unknown ethnic origin, and the number of applicants to higher education refusing to state their parents’ occupational status is large and growing.

The idea of getting around missing context measures by using values for areas or institutions actually makes things worse. There are more school pupils for whom there is no post code data than for any other variable. And, anyway, assuming that an individual has the modal characteristics of the place they live in or the school they attended is a blatant example of the ecological fallacy in logic.

Do you think universities should use contextual data when considering a student’s Ucas application? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Some universities and colleges use contextualised admissions to form a more complete picture of the applicant.

Contextual data and information can be used to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential, in the context of their individual circumstances.

What is contextual data and information?

Contextual data includes educational, geodemographic, and socio-economic background data, such as historic data about an applicant’s school or college. Contextual information relates to individual applicant circumstances, such as if they have been in care, or involved in widening participation activities.

What’s my role in this?

As a teacher or adviser, it’s important to be aware of this practice, so you can give the best advice to your students. Contextualised admissions encourages aspirational applications, and may also help explain why a student has received a certain offer.

What practical steps can I take to help?

  • Encourage your students to complete all the relevant application fields in full. The contextual information submitted on the UCAS application is critical to facilitating contextualised admissions.
  • Use the reference to indicate any further contextual information which might warrant special consideration. This could include individual circumstances – e.g. mature student, disability, widening participation activities, or information about your school which may affect performance, such as significant staff changes, or damage to buildings.

What might this mean for my students’ university applications? 

Contextualised admissions can be used at different stages of the application process, as part of holistic assessment to:

  • target students for widening participation activities
  • inform a decision, including inviting them for interview, contextual offers, and ‘near miss’ applicants at Confirmation
  • identify applicants who may need additional support
  • help assess applicants’ eligibility for financial support

Keen to find out more? We’ve produced this factsheet(443.74 KB) in conjunction with the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) to explain what this might mean for your student applications.

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