Bristol: A tale of two cities

January 21, 2005

For an insight into the size of the task of ensuring that universities open their doors to students from poor backgrounds, the man charged with spearheading the initiative need look no further than his own back yard.

Bristol, home to Sir Martin Harris's Office for Fair Access, is a divided city, split by a river and by the stark differences in the fortunes of its young people.

Look to the west of the city and you will find the highest concentration in one parliamentary constituency of independent schools and an area where 50 per cent of teenagers are expected to go to university.

A few miles away, on the other side of the river in Bristol South, only one in ten teenagers went to university in 2000, ranking the area in the bottom four in the country for post-secondary school attendance.

As with similarly divided cities highlighted by the Hefce study, these areas are little more than a stone's throw from two thriving universities - although, for some children, they may as well be a thousand miles away.

The 2001 Census statistics for Bristol mask the economic extremes that divide areas such as Clifton, the suburban retreat of professionals, and Filwood, which is dominated by council estates.

At 8 per cent, Bristol has a higher proportion of students in full-time education aged 16 and over than the national average of 5 per cent.

The city also has a higher proportion of graduates (24 per cent) than the national average (19 per cent).

In Clifton, where 50 per cent of homes are owner-occupied and 39 per cent are privately rented, 51 per cent of the population has a degree and only 6 per cent has no qualifications.

Yet in Filwood, where 41 per cent of homes are rented from the council, 51 per cent of people have no qualifications and just 6 per cent have degrees.

Valerie Davey, Labour MP for Bristol West and a member of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, says that the challenge south of the river is persuading teenagers to stay in education after GCSEs.

"The key question here is whether children will stay on in education after 16, not 18. "If they stay after 16, evidence shows that if they then go on to get two good A levels they are likely at some stage to go to university.

"The education maintenance allowance is crucial; it's something I have campaigned for. It will make a big difference to young people staying on after 16."

Davey adds: "The thought of debt is daunting. While people who have had a mortgage understand the value of a long-term investment, it is harder to understand if you have never had that kind of debt."

Higher education has a high profile in the city, with a representative of the Russell Group, Bristol University, and a "new" institution, the University of the West of England.

But Bristol takes few local students - just 7 per cent of students hail from BA and BS postcodes, which cover the city and its outer fringes.

At UWE, however, 37 per cent of students come from within 40 miles of the city.

Di Stone of UWE and Bristol's Aimhigher coordinator runs a busy programme of events - summer schools, mentoring programmes, student tutoring and ambassador schemes - designed to raise awareness of higher education.

Stone says she encounters parents' concerns about debt, the risk of failure and the feeling that students from poor backgrounds should choose disciplines with a clear vocational link.

"At Aimhigher events, you start by asking how many of them want to go to university and find that none of them does. By the end of the event, nine out of ten want to go to university," she says.

For Bristol, there is an additional challenge.

Barry Taylor, spokesman for the university, says: "We know that some local students who could thrive at Bristol don't apply because they are not confident that this or any Russell Group university is for them.

"They may assume that because competition for places is fierce in some subjects it's the same for all. Or they may be influenced by the ancient lore that Bristol is the preserve of the well-to-do elite. We devote a lot of energy to busting such myths."

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