Guest leader: Focus on real access issues

Encouraging children to have higher aspirations will improve GCSE pass rates and help widen participation, says Steve Smith

April 24, 2008

The widening participation debate has been dominated by the arguments over fair access. Whether privately educated students have an unfair advantage in getting into the "leading" universities makes for good copy; indeed, many people think that fair access is widening participation. But fair access is just a subset of the participation conundrum (albeit an important one) - widening participation is the bigger issue.

We need to shift the debate from one about which universities students attend to one about the vast number of able students who never enter higher education. The most important statistic about progression to higher education in England is that in 2007 only 46.5 per cent of 16-year-olds gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including maths and English. Yet this statistic conceals a huge difference (about 26 percentage points) between the performance of 16-year-olds in the higher and lower socioeconomic classes.

As a member of the Government's National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE), I am working with Universities UK and the Sutton Trust, among others, to gather the data about widening participation. We presented our report to the NCEE this week and made a set of initial recommendations about how to close this gap. We will discuss these with stakeholders before producing a final report in July, but here are some headlines of the evidence.

After more than a decade of intense effort by universities, it remains the case that you are much more likely to get a degree if you are middle class. Only 10 per cent of those from the poorest fifth of families have acquired a degree by the age of 23, compared with 44 per cent from the richest fifth. The good news is that we have narrowed the gap. Contrary to much published opinion on this topic, the rate of increase in participation between the richest and poorest socioeconomic groups isn't growing, it's narrowing. The bad news is that the gap remains stubbornly large.

With regards to the fair access aspect of this gap, the Sutton Trust estimates that about 3,000 state-school students each year are "missing" from what it labels the 13 "leading" universities in the UK. Their places are taken by independent-school students with lower A-level grades. In contrast, the widening participation gap in England refers to 350,000 of the 660,000 16-year-old students a year who do not achieve the minimum standards to stay on to study for A levels.

The class differences are stark. In the last year for which full details are available by socioeconomic class (2003), 42 per cent of 16-year-olds obtained five good GCSEs including maths and English. For children from higher socioeconomic groups, that figure was 57 per cent, for lower groups it was 31 per cent, and for those eligible for free school meals just 16 per cent. Once students qualify with A levels, eligibility for free school meals makes no difference to their going to university. Thus, the critically important determinant is that they do not progress in education after 16, mainly because they lack the GCSE grades. To widen participation, we must increase the percentage of those from the lowest four socioeconomic groups entering university - and that requires raising GCSE pass rates.

To do that, we have to raise aspirations much earlier. Evidence suggests that social class affects the educational development of children even at nursery age. High-performing children from lower socioeconomic groups are quickly overtaken by poor performers from higher groups. It is time for those who care about widening participation to focus on raising attainment through raising aspirations from a much earlier age.

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