N.B The links in the text will lead you to very interesting reports and articles backing up the points made. Please take a look if you have time
‘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. Consequently, she knows the worries of a household with little money and family members with chronic illnesses. The school she attends with enthusiasm has a high percentage of pupils who, like her, are eligible for free school meals. It has no 6th Form. Zoe isn’t considering going to university but at 18 if she does apply she will have some formidable competition. Applicants who will have attended a school with OFSTED ‘outstanding’ status, enjoyed a comfortable home life, and had parents with degrees themselves. 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 yet unlikely to accurately 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 or college 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 way Zoe’s achievements so far are noted but also her future potential (given more positive conditions) acknowledged.
It’s not like anything sneaky is going on here. This is a method by which students can be supported 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; teaching staff who can guide the application process and ensure experience is gained which makes a Personal Statement stand out. For these clear advantages (and outside help) we do not penalise an applicant; yet for the lack of advantage we frequently do. Through the use of contextual data at this stage, we are attempting to level the playing field.
There’s a bit of a gamble involved but so far Supporting Professionalism in Applications( SPA) have 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.
Ultimately this is about fairness, isn’t it?