Stories + Views
Simon Hughes needs to take a more nuanced approach to university access
I think I am going to enjoy Simon Hughes period as the university access Tsar. He so desperately wants to brand himself as a progressive firebrand that he can’t help shooting from the hip, then he invariably rows back and doesn’t quite deliver ( ie fulminating, then abstaining and not voting against the hike in tuition fees).
His appointment will probably end up being a PR disaster for the Coalition, and most enjoyable to watch from the sidelines, especially as there is already simmering anger among some private school parents about the perception that their offspring are being discriminated against when it comes to university access.
Since Christmas I have heard from, or of, several different families who are blaming the fact that their children didn’t get into Oxford on the fact that they went to private schools. Hughes’ comments this morning that he thinks the proportion of pupils from private schools going to the most selective universities should reflect the percentage of pupils in private schools (7%) will certainly make the pips squeak. At the moment private school pupils take up around 25% of places at the most selective universities and around 46% at Oxbridge.
However much as I want to see the bias in access to the top universities change, I think this is the wrong approach. One of the problems with this debate, articulated again in the remarks from Wendy Piatt from the Russell Group this morning, blaming comprehensive schools for the problem, is that it allows commentators, the elite university sector and Tory politicians to maintain the myth that there is an equivalence between the average private school and the average comprehensive when it comes to judging exam success . But they are completely different types of school and this dishonest comparison means the state sector will lose out time and time again.
Comprehensive schools are just that, comprehensive, taking pupils of all abilities and from all social and economic background. The 7% of school age pupils in private schools meanwhile are largely from affluent families and have to pass a selective entry test to get into their schools, so are already predisposed to elite university access.
We should be celebrating that difference and acknowledging that the great strength of the comprehensive system, when it works well, is that it offers all young people not only excellent teaching and the chance to pursue a broad curriculum, but also the route to a wide range of high quality further, higher education and career choices. And many do get the top qualifications .In 2008/9 75% of pupils gaining 3 A grades at A level were in the state sector, including grammar, comprehensive, sixth form and FE colleges (yet only a just over half of Oxbridge places went to them). If you strip out the grammar schools, around 42 % of pupils who got the A’s were in comprehensives and the FE/sixth form college sector.
We are rapidly, and subtly, being moved to a position where the only definition of success will be a ill thought through qualification ( the English Bac) and a place at an elite university. But just as the English Bac won’t be the right combination of subjects for every pupil, going to a ‘ top’ university won’t be the right choice either , and that includes for some middle class and private school educated pupils. What we need to ensure is that for those who feel it is the right choice, access is fair, regardless of social or economic background.Oxford and Cambridge in particular need to look at the way their admissions procedures work since they undoubtedly benefit schools with the resources and expertise to prepare students and help them make strategically successful choices of courses and colleges, and this latter point shouldn’t be underestimated. Schools meanwhile need to continue to build on existing fantastic work which is slowly raising the aspiration of more disadvantaged young people , even though that will be difficult with the abolition of the EMA.
Meanwhile amongst those students who do get the right grades for the most selective universities, by all means limit private school access to 7% – even though that will mean reducing the number of places available to the children of some very vocal and articulate parents, especially if more disadvantaged children do achieve at A level – but don’t set comprehensive schools a bar over which they can’t jump by pretending they are the same as private schools because they aren’t. And don’t forget there are other higher education routes that don’t necessarily involve elite universities ( art, drama, design, textiles, music, nursing to name a few very high quality courses on which I have seen students excel ). Young people who chose them deserve to have their decisions respected too.