Lesson 1: make school cool

April 6, 2007

Rock stars' row highlights need to recruit working class pupils, writes Melanie Newman.

A recent spat between two rock stars has highlighted the problems universities face in persuading the working classes of the benefits of higher education.

Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher reportedly derided indie rock band Bloc Party as "a band off University Challenge" - a reference to singer Kele Okereke's time as an English literature student at King's College London.

Mr Okereke replied: "Why is it bad to better yourself? It's all about the weird way in which this country chooses to view the working classes. It's daft to reinforce the idea that there is something cool about being dumb."

Despite universities' best attempts at recruiting students from the poorest backgrounds, deep-seated social and cultural barriers still prevent many young people from enrolling.

A research project on participation in higher education in South Bristol by a team at the University of the West of England found that rejection of higher education by young people went beyond poor teaching or schools.

Lynn Raphael Reed, the lead researcher, said the reasons were "deeply rooted in the social, economic and historical context of their local area".

She added: "A significant finding of our research was that by the age of 13 many young people in the area have decided that higher education is not for them."

Universities are trying to tackle these deep-seated and complex factors through a number of methods by, for example, running summer schools.

Yet the latest figures from Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that the proportion of university applicants from "low" socioeconomic groups in the UK rose by just 0.3 per cent between 2006 and 2007.

Wes Streeting, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said that while the NUS wholeheartedly supported the widening participation agenda it was not clear whether it was working.

"Since 1997, we have seen more students entering higher education, but we think insufficient progress is being made in attracting the underrepresented groups," he said.

There is little comprehensive evidence to show that widening participation initiatives are working to attract students from the most deprived backgrounds who would not otherwise have gone to university.

Activities are not carried out on a controlled randomised trial basis, and many other factors, such as the introduction of the educational maintenance allowance, influence people's decision on whether to go to university.

Gwen Evans, co-ordinator for Aspire, the South East London branch of the Aim Higher partnership, said that there were "bits and pieces" of evidence to show that local initiatives were working to attract the hardest-to-reach pupils.

Greenwich University has data from "attitude surveys" of people who attended university widening-participation activities in 2005 and 2006.

This showed that 72 per cent of participants from the lowest participation neighbourhoods intended to go on to study at higher education level.

The university has also tracked individuals aged over 18 years who took part in activities, and it has found around 28 per cent were accepted into universities in 2005-06.

"One of the things we had enormous difficulty with is tracking people," Ms Evans said. "There is a major problem over the passing of information from one sector to the next."

Mark Corver, an analyst for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that until now participation rates had been measured on a local council ward basis using data from the Child Benefit Agency. But from this year figures from the National Pupil Database would be available, giving analysts figures on pupils' schools, race and many other variables besides their home borough.

"There will be records on whether or not pupils have attended summer schools, for example," Mr Corver said. Individuals' data will then be matched with the Higher Education Statistics Agency's student record.

The data should demonstrate which factors correlate most strongly with failure to progress to higher education and will allow future widening participation activities to better address these.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, has admitted that while progress has been made, many young people with the aptitude for university have not benefited.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

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