Bright peaks and blighted valleys

January 21, 2005

Divisions in educational opportunities are found at every scale of the map, but the most stark are often between young people just streets apart, writes Lee Elliot Major

A few hundred metres can make all the difference in the world. In the London local education authority of Kensington and Chelsea, more than half of 18 and 19-year-olds go to university; across the River Thames in Lambeth, a young person's chances of entering higher education are instantly halved.

Around the UK you can make similar journeys - from central Manchester to neighbouring Trafford; from Solihull to Yardley in Birmingham - and with each one a person's probability of going to university plummets by about 50 per cent.

More than perhaps any other factor, the area in which a person is born and raised determines their chances of going to university. And more often than not, according to the Hefce study, the gap that separates the educational haves and the have-nots is not a huge physical one: they can be near neighbours, literally streets apart.

The UK is polarised by this divide: consider the inequalities that mark out the North and South of the country or the western and eastern districts of major cities. The divide is mapped by lines that snake the length and breadth of the country - carving out ghettos in the largest cities, fragmenting rural areas and creating mountains and valleys of opportunity.

The differences in higher education participation between UK regions continue to widen, the study shows. Young people in London are nearly 60 per cent more likely to go to university than those living in the North East.

But it is only when you look closer - at the country's 650 parliamentary constituencies - that the stark landscape of educational inequalities begins to emerge.

In some of the constituencies with the highest participation rates - Hallam in Sheffield (see sidebars), Eastwood in Scotland, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster in London - more than two thirds of young people go to university. A child growing up in these constituencies is at least six times more likely to get to university than a child in Sheffield Brightside (the constituency of David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary and Education Secretary), Nottingham North, Leeds Central or Bristol South. In these areas, no more than a tenth of children go on to enrol on degree courses.

An examination of the political map at the level of wards - the smallest electoral districts - reveals yet more inequalities. The 30,000 or so young people in the country's most advantaged wards are more than ten times more likely to go to university than are the corresponding 30,000 in the least advantaged wards.

The Hefce study does not examine the host of social and cultural factors - family background, wealth, childcare, schooling, friendships, role models and the like - that may explain the geographical divide in university prospects. But it does highlight some telltale correlations for areas with low or high participation rates. One particularly striking relationship is the close association between the level of participation by young people and the proportion of adults holding a higher education qualification. In many areas, there is also a link between schools with good GCSE results and high take-up rates of university.

But what is perhaps especially alarming is that these ingrained inequalities in higher education prospects shifted so little in the six years covered by the Hefce study.

The participation figures for those reaching the age of 18 between 1994 and 2000 have hardly changed at all. In general, the most disadvantaged areas have shown the highest growth in university participation when measured proportionally or in percentage terms. But this growth is built on such a low base that, in absolute percentage terms, it is nothing compared with the increases witnessed for the most advantaged areas. This means that the participation gap between the groups has risen over the period. And this yawning gap will not be picked up by figures computed on a country-wide basis, which are used to gauge progress towards the Government's target of attracting half of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010. The figures laid out in the Hefce study highlight deep social divides that cannot be solved by universities alone.

Nevertheless, Penny Jane Burke, lecturer in higher education in the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, argues that the raft of policies and programmes intended to increase participation in higher education are mostly "superficial". The Government's Aimhigher campaign focuses largely on raising aspirations of young people from communities in which motivation, skill and aspirations are low. What is needed, Burke says, is a fundamental reappraisal of how universities cater for a wider and more diverse audience of students in higher education.

"Such initiatives rest on notions of merit and hidden potential - this places the emphasis on identifying talented individuals from poor groups rather than on redressing deeply rooted social inequalities," she says.

"Current policy focuses on individual aspirations and does not recognise the importance of social practices that serve to create new forms of educational inclusions and exclusions. We need to understand the perspectives and experiences of young people from less privileged backgrounds and develop policies and practices from this understanding.

This will require change to higher education at a multitude of levels including curriculum, pedagogy and assessment as well as a close examination of the ways certain academic practices are highly exclusive to some social groups in society.

"Unless we address these issues, the same groups of young people - those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds - will go on to higher education in larger numbers, while those from poor backgrounds will continue to be excluded (outside of) a few exceptional individuals who manage to benefit from a university education," she concludes.

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