Faster, higher, stronger

August 30, 2012

Data released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills earlier this month reveal that just 18 per cent of state school pupils who had been eligible for free school meals at the age of 15 were in education four years later, compared with 36 per cent of those who were not eligible ("Low-income families half as likely to see children reach university", www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 11 August).

Sir Martin Harris, outgoing director of the Office for Fair Access, has argued that widening participation "remains key to the sector's progress, and fair access to our most selective universities is a major challenge for society ... It has been an issue throughout all the fee regimes, including the 1960s when there were no fees and very generous grants. Throughout this period, the participation of the least advantaged socio-economic groups in our most selective universities has remained disappointingly low." ("We must maintain our two-pronged assault on social immobility", Opinions, 26 July.)

University league tables increasingly highlight the relative ability of institutions' graduates to access elite jobs or academic career opportunities. Consequently, the schools most eagerly sought out by the affluent pay close attention to coaching, notably for A level, to enter those institutions. Depending on expertise and resources, they correspondingly achieve the required grades, notwithstanding the naturally academically gifted benefiting irrespectively.

Although the BIS data suggest that other factors beyond family income may play a part in progression to higher education, logically, widening access is likely to remain largely restricted to gradual growth in gross domestic product per capita and the proportion of the more affluent social groups similarly raised.

Maybe, therefore, more effective tapping of vocational education specifically designed for industry, commerce, the modern professions and technologies, particularly in the highly selective universities, might potentially provide a more regular and lucrative alternative route to higher education for students conventionally limited to further education.

Prestigious development by the top-ranked universities of such programmes, perhaps initially as Level 5 foundation degrees tailored exclusively to vocational criteria matching the emerging Level 3 school diplomas developed in conjunction with sector skills councils and major companies, could usefully kick-start the process. Level 4 or 5 vocational qualifications would simultaneously carry better currency for integrated progression. Indeed, the availability of vocational "distinction" grades potentially would assist the entry process.

On an associated note, widespread national interest in the London 2012 Olympics has brought to attention concerns regarding the role of sport in state schools.

A random website sample of the sports results of top independent schools suggests that few compete in friendly fixtures against their state-sector equivalents. The sports ethos of the former is often emphasised as a reason for their success, and the range of sports and facilities on offer generally is very impressive.

Nevertheless, a number of state schools and groups presumably are capable of challenging competitively in selected sports at this level if they are well-focused on sport and appropriately resourced, possibly in concert with local sports clubs, gyms and centres that possess the necessary expertise and incentives to cooperate.

Perhaps the UK's national governing bodies of sport could help specifically encourage and forge better sporting links between state and private schools to help raise standards, increase resources and improve coaching for the majority of students, schools themselves and their regions. This could pay dividends at Rio 2016.

Frank Harris, Emeritus professor of construction science, University of Wolverhampton

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