Leader: The big push must come early

Given that A-level success is key to entering higher education, perhaps universities should leave widening participation to schools

February 25, 2010

Pupils from poorly performing schools do better at university than those with equivalent A levels from better performing schools, and pupils from independent schools perform better at university than those from local authority schools with the same A levels. These assertions are regularly trotted out by vested interests, the first by campaigners fighting for fair access and the second by newspapers such as the Daily Mail claiming that undeserving state students are taking places away from private-school pupils whose hard-working parents paid for a decent education.

Both, in fact, are wrong.

Even the supposedly elite universities are in a muddle over admissions. If they want to admit the best, why are they not following the example of the US Ivy League and indulging in self-serving social engineering by competing for the top students from minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds? For the leading US institutions, what is important is spotting who is most likely to succeed academically. But as Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, says in our cover feature, "the penny hasn't dropped" in the UK and universities are missing out "by contributing to a revolving door of economic privilege and cultural narrowness".

This year sees a major milestone missed. In 1999, Tony Blair announced his target of getting 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds into higher education. Now, in 2010, the year later set as a deadline, we are still 7 percentage points short. Some groups lag far behind others: those from better-off backgrounds are more than twice as likely to enter university as those from poorer households. Of the 80,000 pupils aged over 16 who were eligible for free school meals in 2007, only 5,000 sat A levels; of the 30,000 pupils who gained three As at A level, a measly 176 were eligible for free school meals.

That's a poor result for what has been spent on widening participation - £392 million over six years, according to Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. But then, there is little robust evidence on which initiatives actually work. In this time, 40,700 more young people from under-represented socio-economic groups have entered university than trends in previous years would have suggested, costing the taxpayer almost £10,000 apiece.

Such attention to social background can cloud the picture of progression to higher education. Attainment is key, particularly at 16 and below. It is too late at 18: almost all those who achieve top A-level grades already apply to university. And A-level success is only partly attributable to the type of school attended; the other factors are a mishmash of family, neighbourhood and plain just don't know.

There seems to have emerged from research and reflection a consensus that what works is partnership between schools and universities and a view that efforts should be focused on raising attainment and giving guidance early in secondary school (shame about the demolition of the schools careers service, then).

This brings us to a difficult moment. At a time of fiscal constraint when the offering is being recalibrated and student places cut, should universities be tasked with widening participation? If early intervention is the answer, wouldn't it be more honest to admit that the cash would be better spent elsewhere in the education system?


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