The Unconditional Expansion of Universities

There has been a staggering 2000% increase in unconditional university offers awarded to students in the last five years, between 2013 to 2018. 

In 2013, a mere 2985 students were awarded unconditional offers, compared to 61, 915 in 2018. To put this in percentage terms: in 2013 0.4 % of offers were unconditional, which rose to 7.1% of offers in 2018. This is all according to UCAS’ latest ‘end of cycle report‘. 

Or to put it in its most ‘dramatic terms’ – that’s a nearly 2000% increase in unconditional offers in 5 years. 

Why do universities make unconditional offers?

The obvious answer from a ‘psychological’ prospective is that an unconditional offer sends out a message to a student that the university ‘wants them’, that it ‘thinks favourably of them’, basically that it ‘likes them’, which makes that university more appealing to the student.

My love for you is unconditional, like this university offer….

According to the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, they use unconditional offers to attract high caliber students, which is going to be an advantage in a competitive market place, improving results and the calibre of graduate job the students get, which is all good for surviving in a competitive education market.

Universities are also using unconditional offers more crudely, to get ‘bums on seats’ in order to expand. The immediate policy impetus for this was the removal of the cap on the number of students each university could take on.

Driving this sort ‘unconditional expansion’ is again the market driven education system – in which you either expand or die. More bums on seats = more profit = more investment to attract more students. It’s just crude survival of the fittest in this crudest of systems.

70% of students support universities giving out unconditional offers, citing the reduction in stress and increase in mental health benefits that this certainty brings.

Ironically, this means that while our marketized education system induces more pressure and stress through-out school life generally, ironically it’s created a ‘stress free’ window for those students who get unconditional offers in their final year 13.

What are the problems with unconditional offers?

There is evidence that receiving an unconditional offer makes students ‘switch off’ – 56% of students missed their targets by two grades or more, compared to 67% of students with regular ‘conditional offers’.

Or to put it more bluntly, those students who ‘have to pass their A-levels’ to get into the university of their choice are 10% more likely to do so than those who have just been gifted a place.

As an A-level teacher, I can testify that this is more than a bit crap when you are judged on your results… it means 7% of your students more likely to underachieve and there is literally nothing you can do can to motivate some of them. Unconditional offers undermines the ability of 16-19 teachers to meet the targets they are judged by. This is thus dysfunctional.

Underachieving at A-level might also come back to disadvantage students when they apply for jobs. Employers do look at A-level grades after all, and CCC is going to look a bit slack compared to a 2.1. It sends out the message that a students switches off when they can, rather than always giving their all. And if there’s more than one candidate or more for a job, the chances are they’ll be someone else in the field with a 2.1 and BBB (or whatever their target grades were at A-level).

It’s also extremely unfair… seven percent of students with a stress-free ride, compared to the rest of students having to achieve. It’s just not equitable.

An upside: widening participation?

The UCAS report does show that higher attaining students are most likely to be required to get their grades, which unconditional offers mainly going to mid-range students, and in terms of subjects, medicine hardly gives out any unconditional offers, whereas it’s the creative arts which give out the most.

This does suggest that unconditional offers are being used to widen participation, however, I’d need to see how this relates to retention to make a judgement as to how effective this is.

Final thoughts – should we ban unconditional offers?

If students are required to get grades at the end of 13, then I say yes, simply on the basis of equity. It’s not fair subjecting most students to the stress of having to achieve and a significant minority to an easier ride.

Also, I don’t see how scrapping unconditional offers is going to prevent universities expanding, or from managing their future intake: scrapping unconditional offers would only delay knowing the intake for the next year by 10 months, which is not that long in the grand scheme of things, and there’s plenty of other indicators universities could use in this big data era to forecast realistic numbers with sufficient certainty.

Sources (image 1, and the link to the UCAS report)

Bear –



Gender and Education: Good Resources

Useful links to quantitative and qualitative research studies, statistics, researchers, and news paper articles relevant to gender and education. These links should be of interest to students studying A-level and degree level sociology, as well as anyone with a general interest in the relationship between gender, gender identity, differential educational achievement and differences in subject choice.

Just a few links to kick-start things for now, to be updated gradually over time…

General ‘main’ statistical sites and sources

The latest GSCE results analysed by gender from the TES

A Level Results from the Joint Council for Qualifications – broken down by gender and region

Stats on A level STEM subjects – stats on the gender balance are at the end (70% of psychology students are female compared to only 10% of computer science students)

General ‘Hub’ Qualitative resources 

The Gender and Education Association – works to eradicate sexism and gender equality within education. Promotes a Feminist pedagogy (theory of learning).

A link to Professor Becky Francis’ research, which focuses mainly on gender differences in educational achievement – at time of writing (November 2017) her main focus seems to be on girls lack of access to science and banding and streaming (the later not necessarily gender focused)

Specific resources for exploring gender and differential educational achievement

Education as a strategy for international development – despite the fact that girls are outperforming boys in the United Kingdom and most other developed countries, globally girls are underachieving compared to boys in most countries. This link takes you to a general post on education and social development, many of the links explore gender inequality in education.

Specific resources for exploring gender and subject choice 

Dolls are for Girls, Lego is for Boys – A Guardian article which summarizes a study by Becky Francis’s on Gender, Toys and Learning, Francis asked the parents of more than 60 three- to five-year-olds what they perceived to be their child’s favourite toy and found that while parental choices for boys were characterised by toys that involved action, construction and machinery, there was a tendency to steer girls towards dolls and perceived “feminine” interests, such as hairdressing.

Girls are Logging Off – A BBC article which briefly alerts our attention to the small number of girls opting to do computer science.



Why are schools ‘off-rolling’ more students before their GCSEs?

Why are schools off-rolling more students just before their GCSEs?

Mainstream secondary schools are increasingly engaging in the process of ‘off-rolling’ students between year 10 and sitting their GCSEs, according to a recent OFSTED report:

In 2017, a total of 19 000 students left a school between year 10 and sitting their GCSEs in 2011. This is 10% more than in the previous year.

  • A total of 2,900 schools offrolled at least one pupil between years 10 and 11,
  • 560 schools had numbers which were significantly above what Ofsted would expect
  • 300 schools had significantly higher offrolling numbers for two consecutive years.

What are the characteristics of off-rolling schools and off-rolled students?

  • Children with special educational needs, looked after children and some minority ethnic groups are more likely to leave their school.
  • A higher proportion of schools in London off-roll pupils compared to other parts of the country
  • Academies, particularly those in academy trusts off-roll more pupils than local authority schools.


What happens to off-rolled students?

Half of them go to other schools – either from LEA to LEA schools or from an Academy to an LEA school (but less likely in the other direction!), and I imagine some will go to Pupil Referral Units.

Half of off-rolled students in 2017 did not reappear in the census of another state school, and according to Jason Bradbury, Ofsted’s deputy director for data and insight, these pupils may now be attending an unregistered school or have dropped out of education entirely.

Of course some of these pupils will be being homeschooled, although TBH it’s probably more a case of their being ‘homeschooled’.

Links to A-level sociology

Bit busy today to thrash out the links, but there seems to be evidence of mainly academies doing this to game the results: getting rid of students most likely to fail, and so this appears to be an obvious unintended negative consequence of marketisation!



How I would’ve answered the AQA A level sociology of education exam, June 2018

A few hints and tips on how I would have answered yesterday’s exam.

Answers to the AQA’s A-level sociology education with theory and methods exam, June 2018… Just a few thoughts to put students out of their misery. (Ideas my own, not endorsed by the AQA).

Click here for a link to general advice for how to answer questions on paper 1: Education with theory and methods.

I won’t produce the exact questions below, just the gist…

Q01 – how marketization policies may affect social class differences in achievement (4 marks)

Difficulty – very easy

I would have gone with two aspects of marketization policy and then linked these to material and cultural factors which explain class differences

  • E.G. more parental choice – linked to skilled choosers
  • Formula funding – polarisation of schools – cream skimming/ selection by mortgage (bit of a mission but it would distinguish between the previous point!)

And then ideally explain how they differentially effect at least two ethnic groups. 

Q02 – Three reasons for gender differences in educational achievement(6 marks)

Same topic as last year’s 6 marker…difficulty level very easy.

I would have gone for something like….

  • Socialisation differences
  • subcultures
  • Teacher labelling

I would have discussed gender differences (between girls and boys) and then the different effects on educational achievements, clearly comparing males and females.

Then talk it through with ideally three example of different subjects, discussing both boys and girls.

Q03 – Analyse two ways in which education serves the needs of capitalism

Difficulty –  fairly easy

NB – there was a lot in the item you could have discussed. The ‘hooks’ were really as follows:

  • Capitalism being based on a wealthy minority owning the means of production
  • Capitalism requiring people working in low-paid menial jobs
  • Capitalism requiring workers to not rebel.

It follows that you want to develop using the following

Point one – Capitalism requiring people working in low-paid menial jobs – develop using correspondence principle, further develop with something about Private Schools and the elite class to contrast.

Point two – Capitalism requiring workers to not rebel – develop using ‘legitimation of class inequality, evaluate with Paul Willis.

Q04 Evaluate explanations of social class differences in educational achievement (30)

Difficulty – easy

Personally, I think you should have just ‘tweaked’ this essay plan accordingly, and made more of the links between out of school and in-school factors!

Q05 – the strengths and limitations of participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions

Difficulty – easy for a methods in context question!

As usual, get the method correct first – deal with the practical, ethical and theoretical problems of BOTH covert and overt. And as you go through, try to link to researching in school and the topic.

NB the item mentions poorer pupils and Gypsy Roma pupils, so plenty of specifics to pick up on with gaining access especially.

I will knock up a more thought out answer at some point soon, nice question this!

06 – Two problems with using Functionalism to understand society

Difficulty – easy

I actually covered this in this post – slightly different format, but enough material here for you to develop into a full mark answer to this question.

A-Level Sociology Revision Bundle

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

Sociological perspectives on the relationship between education and work


Main post on the functionalist perspective on education.

Education teaches us specialist skills for work – At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs. This allows for a complex division of labour to take place.

Role Allocation and meritocracy – Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy


Main post on the marxist perspective on education.

The reproduction of class inequality and the myth of meritocracy – In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced

School teaches the skills future capitalist employers need through the ‘Hidden Curriculum (e.g. pupils Learn to accept authority; they learn to accept hierarchy, and motivation by external rewards)

Paul Willis

Willis described the friendship between the 12 boys (or the lads) he studied as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work. The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.


Stereotypical views of teachers and careers advisors as well as peer group pressure means that subject choices are still shaped by traditional gender norms – which limits the kind of jobs boys and girls go onto do in later life.

Even though girls do better at school, they still get paid less than men, so qualifications do not necessarily result in more pay!

The New Right

Main post on the new right and education

The mid 1970s was a time of rising unemployment in Britain, particularly among the young.  It was argued that the education system was not producing a skilled enough workforce and that the needs of the economy were not being met. From the mid 1970s both the Conservative and Labour governments agreed that education should be more focussed on improving the state of the economy by providing training courses for young people in different areas of work.

This emphasis on meeting the needs of industry became known as ‘New Vocationalism’ which first took off in the 1980s.

Applying material from Item A, analyse two reasons why some pupils join pupil subcultures (10)

This is one of the 10 mark analyse questions appearing on one of the AQA’s specimin papers, below I’ve simply adapted the AQA’s model answer and added in my own commentary….

  • Hooks in the item
  • What to apply the hooks to = pupil subcultures!

Item A

Schools give status to pupils on the basis of characteristics such as their perceived ability, behaviour and attitude, and this is often related to pupils’ class, gender and ethnicity.

Pupils with desirable characteristics are given higher status and treated differently. These pupils are likely to do well and to feel positive about school. Some other pupils may be more concerned about their friends’ opinions of them than with the school’s view of them.

The text below has been modified from the AQA’s student responses and examiner commentary. All I’ve done is split the paragraphs apart to show you clearly that there are 4-5 explanations/ development of each point. NB the response got 10/10.

Point 1

Hargreaves argued that schools streamed pupils on the basis of their behaviour (Item A line 2). Those students who were labelled as a trouble-maker were put in the lower stream.

They had two negative labels put on them. They were penalised by being put in a secondary school (modern) and by being put in the lower streams. The teachers called them worthless louts. The students were denied status and came together to create a sense of self-worth forming anti-school subcultures.

They did this by inverting the values of the school. In an anti-school sub-culture being bad became being good. Thus they didn’t hand in homework, cheated and broke school rules.

The more they did this the more their respect increased amongst their peers. Because these pupils were treated differently (Item A line 3) they developed a sub-culture.

Point 2:

The way teachers treat pupils causes pupils to form a subculture. This may be because they are labelled by teachers in the classroom. Labelling means attaching a definition such as bright or high achiever.

This labelling may be due to external factors such as possessing elaborated language code. Lacey found that teacher labelling can result in polarisation of pupils, where they become even further apart in achievement and behaviour.

Those who are positively labelled form pro-school subcultures, they tend to mix with other who are similarly labelled. The pupils in these subcultures work hard and have good behaviour.

These pupils gain more favour with the teachers and research by Ball showed how this meant the teacher spent more time with them. Linking to the first point, these pupils are also more likely to end up in higher streams, further improving their chances of educational success.

Examiner commentary

Good knowledge and understanding of two relevant reasons, streaming and labelling, for the reasons why pupils form subcultures. These include relevant sociological evidence and concepts. The points show developed application of the material from the item. The answer also draws links between the two reasons for the formation of subcultures. 10/10 marks awarded

Karl’s Commentary – How to answer 10 mark questions?

From this example, it seems obvious that the student has nit-picked the item to the extreme. What they’ve done in both responses is linked the first section of the item to the second section, so if you can do this, then that’s clearly best practice!

They’ve also done the following to ‘differentiate’: note – they talk about four different things!

  • Streaming – linked to anti-school subcultures
  • Labelling – linked to pro-school subcultures.

An alternative strategy may have been to pick up on the class, gender and ethnicity element and use this to differentiate even further in both points!

NB – There’s a colour coded version of the above in the revision bundle below, in which I show all the many links the candidate makes to the item! 

Essay Plans/ Revision Resources

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education


Sources used to write this post

AQA: Student Responses with Examiner Commentary Specimen Paper 2015

Essay Plans/ Revision Resources

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

Is University overrated?

According to in the Economist, we are engaged in a pointless academic arms race, with more and more students going to university, while the benefits to them, and to wider society become harder to concern. Degrees are now so common place, that they don’t really mean very much, but employers still use them as a means of screening applicants, and many fields that didn’t used to require a degree, now do (take recruitment as an example).

There is also a problem that many students who start degree courses do not complete their studies… across the developed world, fully 30% of students who start a degree drop out without graduating, a problem which has a significant financial cost when each year of study costs £10K.

Maybe students would be better off spending their money to boost their ‘micro-credentials’ by doing short courses which mean more to employers… IT courses for example?

Playing the SENCO Game…

According to the latest Department for Education data, the number of pupils receiving extra time in exams in England and Wales has increased by 35.8% since 2013/14.

However, at the same time there has been a 20.4% decrease in pupils identified as having Special Education Needs.

This represents a real terms 4 year increase of 51.2% of pupils receiving extra time, relative to those pupils identified as SEN (which should give us an indication of the underlying ‘pool’ of pupils who are potentially eligible for extra time.

Here’s the statistics (full sources below)

SEN pupils

So what’s going on here? How do we explain this?

This Telegraph article points to the fact that a disproportionate amount of the increase in pupils receiving extra time is driven by kids (or rather parents) in Independent schools…they are twice as likely to receive extra time as kids in state funded schools.

This alone has to push you towards a combination of cultural capital theory and labelling theory in explaining what’s going on here – it’s extremely unlikely that kids in Independent schools have objectively (i.e. really) suddenly become more in need of extra time, relative to kids in state schools – and as the article alludes to, it’s probably down to middle class parents getting their kids assessed for extra time (and maybe those kids gaming the system?)

NB – the number of kids in state schools receiving extra time in exams has also increased, but not as fast as those in independent schools. (Might be interesting to subject this to regional analysis to see if it’s linked to income?)

VERY INTERESTINGLY, if you dig into the Access Arrangements data below, this aspect of the data doesn’t exist from the DFES (I assume it did once, otherwise said article wouldn’t have been written)

As to the increasing number of kids receiving extra time AT THE SAME TIME AS A DECREASE IN KIDS WITH SEN – this might reflect a polarisation – i.e. objectively there are fewer kids with ‘more serious’ SEN that require such exam concessions, but overall there are fewer kids with any SEN…

HOWEVER, once you dig even deeper into the stats below, what do you find…

Statemented kids are on the increase within state funded schools (where you get Pupil Premium for taking on statemented kids), while non statemented SEN kids are on the decrease (which you don’t get funding for, but you have to spend school resources on to keep OFSTED happy)

Compared to Independent schools – Statemented kids are on the decrease, while non-statemented kids are on the increase – and how do we explain the difference – these schools don’t get extra money for taking on statemented SEN kids like state schools, while they can get their kids extra time by doing their own ‘in-house’ SEN assessment.

NB – this is only one possible interpretation, and I’m prepared to stand corrected if anyone wants to pull me up on my less than perfect understanding of SEN funding and access arrangement policy!

Sources of Data

SEN data

Access Arrangements

Telegraph Article

Problems with the fusion of  big data and education

The first problem is that it will be more difficult for us to forget and escape our past….

While we as individuals grow, evolve and change, comprehensive educational data collected through the years remains unchanged – there is a problem that as the amount of data collected on us through our formative years, we might be judged in the future by this historic data – creating a kind of ‘permanence of the past’.

Our historic data record might show a future employer that we were enrolled in a remedial math class in our first year of university, and this fact alone might put them off calling us for interview, even if our maths has evolved in the intervening years, which means we might get credit for how we have evolved in our later years.

The problem with data is that it is unlikely to tell anyone about the context in which it takes place – if test scores are low during particular years, for example, the data alone is unlikely to tell us what was going on more broadly in our lives at that time – unlike today, when we can effectively forget low-periods in our lives, in the forthcoming age of big data, they will always be on display for anyone to scrutinise, without access to the more in-depth context.

Employers already track Facebook posts, if there is more educational data, then they might well delve into that too.

A second problem is that our big data record might fix our future…

Today schools make predictions based on ‘small data’, yet students can argue against the paths suggested by such small data (GCSEs etc) because it is precisely that, small, collected at only a few points in time, clearly not telling the whole story.

In the Big data age, however, predictions based on more data may become so accurate that they lock students into educational tiers of particular programmes of study – some universities are already experimenting with ‘e-advisors’ – since the University of Arizona implemented such a system in 2007, the proportion of students moving on from one year to the next has increased from 77% to 84%…. In future these systems may evolve to advise, or prevent, students from undertaking particular courses of study deemed to be too difficult for them.

This may lock-in students to pre-determined study and career paths, which may have a detrimental effect on equality of opportunity.

A third problem, largely dismissed by Cukier, is that the fusion between big data and educational institutions will only work if students and parents consent to tech companies having access to their children’s private data. For some reason he cannot see the problems with this, which suggests more than anything else he’s an industry-insider.

School Types in England and Wales – Statistical Overview…

As of 2017, there were over 250 000 children in ‘Converter Academies’, 86, 000 students in sponsored academies, and 170 000 students in LEA maintained schools. This that in 2017 there were twice as many students in converter and sponsored academies combined as there are in LEA funded mainstream schools….

Number Pupils Schools Academies

Free Schools, meanwhile, cater to only just over 3000 students, with studio schools the least popular type of school, with only 1200 students.

Click on the link above, for the (slightly lame) interactive version… NB this is me still trying to get my head around Tableau!