Mindset change needed to boost opportunities

February 15, 2002

This week's green paper on 14 to 19 education is an act of courage on the part of a second-term government that has committed itself to delivery above all else as the measure of its success. Like the railways and the National Health Service, this corner of the public sector has problems that reach back decades, but must now be made to work in the 21st century.

One indicator of the problems that persist is this week's finding that children from working-class families are becoming less likely, not more, to study professional subjects such as law at university. This denies them opportunity and impoverishes the professions by depriving them of talent.

It is unlikely, whatever reforms the government pursues, that most barristers' children will be working in call centres a few years from now, or that the majority of medical students will be the children of bus drivers. But universities have a unique role in reforming the mindset that the green paper addresses. They occupy the top of the higher education food chain, taking the most qualified students and accelerating them along the route to success and high earnings. A little more honesty in their description of what they do would be a good start. They are vocational institutions, teaching subjects that mostly relate to jobs, and have been since they first produced priests in the Middle Ages. Even subjects that do not connect to a profession are sold as training for the mind, with much mention of the top jobs to which they might lead.

If the reforms announced this week are successful, they will lead to a more balanced approach to the education of teenagers, in which pathways do not close off at an early stage, learning remains an expectation for longer and university entrance remains a possibility for everyone who can pass the exams. But the politicians may have underestimated the problems of setting a unified system in place for the diverse needs of teenagers throughout England. Despite complaints about dumbing-down, university admissions tutors like A levels and are only just getting used to AS levels. They are now to have an extra crutch in the form of a higher diploma to help find the most able students. This might lighten their workload, but the more conscientious are sure to regret the loss of compulsory languages after 14 and the free-for-all (apart from a few core subjects) that the green paper envisages for the school curriculum.

It will also take time for universities to get used to the idea that their brightest applicants may not have GCSEs, at present the prime indicator of potential. The aim of the green paper is to ensure people up to the age of 19 have motives and opportunities to stay in education. The idea of assessing their less formal achievements, and giving credit for them, is a good one. But it is also a potential minefield of discrimination against the poor, whose hobbies are bound to be less interesting to universities than those of the middle class.

The proposed reforms have also to be seen in the context of the government's ambitions for a further expansion of higher education. The two are highly compatible, especially given the development of foundation degrees, which have been designed to accept non-traditional students. But ministers must know that no amount of increased access will help if students from less prosperous backgrounds find university financially as well as socially intimidating.

As the letters opposite about last week's article by the pseudonymous Joe Bone suggest, there are already deep questions about the changing nature of the student body and how best to teach it. Perhaps the English education system has developed such an enthusiasm for examinations that by the time they reach college, some students feel like a rest. As the green paper turns white, one thing that might usefully change would be an increased appreciation of the need to teach and enthuse children without such frequent checking of the effects.

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