Universities are failing the access challenge and students from poorer areas are missing out
Systemic change is needed to broaden the pool of applicants so those from disadvantaged backgrounds can flourish in higher education, writes Lucy Powell MP
The idea that the most advantaged pupils at private schools are being discriminated against is laughable. It comes to something when heads at the leading independent schools in the country are warning of “discrimination” against their pupils who are, more often than not, born into privilege and have access to all of life’s advantages from an early age.
While some schools may have exemplary programmes to support a small number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the reality is that their intakes are overwhelmingly white and middle class.
Stagnating social mobility in this country means that we have to look at how universities can better reflect – and better attract and retain – children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Young people from more advantaged backgrounds are six times as likely to attend selective universities like Oxford and Cambridge as those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Elite universities are failing the access challenge and we need systemic change if we’re to break the class ceiling that many talented young people face.
Concerns voiced by heads of independent schools carry no weight because the odds are not stacked against their pupils in the same way they are for many children in inner city schools in my own constituency of Manchester, or in towns like Grimsby or Great Yarmouth.
Stagnating social mobility in this country means that we have to look at how universities can better reflect – and better attract and retain – children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds
While state schools across the country do a fantastic job in very challenging circumstances, factors such as birth, status, and even the exams that pupils sit all reinforce the privileges enjoyed by already advantaged pupils.
As I’ve uncovered before, pupils in private schools overwhelmingly take international GCSEs (IGCSEs), which are not regulated in the same way as the reformed GCSEs and which the Government does not consider to be the “gold standard” qualification.
Any action to level the playing field must look at the exams children take, as well as how universities assess them for admission.
New measures to improve university access for the most able disadvantaged students are to be welcomed, with the Office for Students promising to halve the access gap at our most selective universities in the next five years and eliminate it entirely within 20 years.
But to ensure this is successful, we need to take a much deeper look at where those state school pupils are coming from, and ensure that it’s the poorest students who are given the chance and rewarded with places at the top universities.
It’s good to see some improvements from Russell Group universities but it’s clear they need to do much more heavy lifting.
It’s not just about the divide between private and state schools, though; pernicious as this is. I worry that many of the state school pupils gaining a place at the Russell Group of universities are those from selective state schools like grammars. Bright, able students from good schools in poorer areas may still be missing out.
Just as with private schools, some of the highest performing state schools can monopolise places at the expense of other schools that are struggling or less networked.
That’s why contextual admissions which take into account the educational and socio-economic background of a pupil should be encouraged. We must ensure that this approach does not just reward pupils at elite state schools, but the most able pupils doing well at all schools.
Lucy Powell is Labour and Co-operative MP for Manchester Central and former shadow education secretary