Letter: A wider look at participation 1

December 7, 2001

An anonymous student support officer argues in "How to ignite bright sparks" ( THES , November 30) that there may be dangerous, if unintended, consequences of targeting pupils at an early age deemed suitable for higher education.

Deprivation means that educational potential is often not easily revealed, even through cognitive-ability tests. For this reason, the Bristol Excellence Challenge plan advocates:

* Inclusive practices from an early age aimed at raising aspirations and achievement

* Research into what works well for specific groups such as ethnic minorities or schoolgirl mothers

* Appropriate criteria for identifying the widening participation cohort, for example, young people in care, from refugee families or with no prior family experience of higher education

* Ethical guidelines for the identification of participants, for example, no labelling or unwarranted pressure

* Shared ownership of the project built on respectful dialogue with young people, their families and communities

* Staff development to ensure teacher capability to identify and support such pupils.

Without such an agenda, the Excellence Challenge could become another supposedly meritocratic screening process. We know from postwar policies on selection of working-class children how this can reinforce the failure of those most excluded and marginalised, while appearing to liberate those who deserve "saving". We also know standards can rise and targets be met, while inequalities widen. Such patterns must not be repeated.

Lynn Raphael Reed
University of the West of England and
Bristol Excellence Challenge consultancy team member

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