Minister for cool parties tells kids: aim high

January 27, 2006

Bill Rammell is proud to take his widening-participation mission to working-class pupils, reports Steve Farrar

The schoolchildren loll on their silver beanbags, staring warily up at the man who has just interrupted their afternoon.

Against the funky decor of the Aim Higher trailer, the grey-haired Higher Education Minister looks rather out of place.

In fact, Bill Rammell feels right at home. Gate-crashing a widening-participation session in his constituency of Harlow is part of his heart-felt quest to get more working-class children into university.

Thanks to the Government's financial support, he explains, no bright child need stay away. His task, then, is simply to convince them. And so Mr Rammell tells his young audience about the great time he had at university.

"The social life is very good," he informs them. Expanded horizons, studying favourite subjects and enhanced income are important, of course.

But the children really respond to talk of seeing bands, playing football and pool and having fun.

Then again, they were already in a receptive mood about university, having been skilfully cajoled by Lennox Hall, the impressively cool graduate in bandanna and baseball cap who led the impressively cool Aim Higher session.

The children confide that they had been worried that university meant paying lots to do boring work. Now they were imagining how fun the parties would be.

Mr Rammell is been encouraged by his trip to Passmores, an ambitious Harlow comprehensive set on raising pupil aspirations. The Essex town does not send many of its children to university.

Mr Rammell sees initiatives such as Aim Higher as essential in raising numbers.

He knows he was lucky. The Harlow he grew up in was a vibrant new town in which a generation was encouraged to pursue higher education by parents who never had the opportunity. His mother drummed it into her son to work hard at school and win a place at university; his teachers at Burnt Mill, one of the UK's first comprehensives, did likewise. Several of his closest friends were similarly inspired to quit their council estates to study for degrees.

The University College of Wales, Cardiff, transformed Mr Rammell's life. He played for the university football team, took part in stage productions and joined the Labour Club. "I had a fabulous time," he recalls.

But in his final year he knuckled down to work. Graduating with a 2.1 in French, he then spent a year as president of Cardiff's student union, a position once held by his hero Neil Kinnock.

He was determined to make a difference, and at 23 Mr Rammell was elected to Harlow Council. By 37 he was an MP. As an effective if not dazzling orator, he may not light up the room like Boris Johnson, his charismatic opposite number on the Tory front bench, but he does have presence.

He also has experience debating with more flamboyant opponents such as Jerry Hayes, the Conservative MP he unseated in Harlow, who like Mr Johnson, was the subject of a News of the World exposé. Unlike Mr Johnson, Mr Hayes also parascended dressed as a chicken.

Mr Rammell, in contrast, is a no-nonsense politician. His pragmatic instinct saw his opposition to tuition fees fade early enough to see him become the minister responsible for their implementation.

"I've become convinced," he says. "You need fees to get the funding into the system - although if that is going to work, you also need much better student support."

The Government, he says, is spending about £2 billion to that end. It is also, under Mr Rammell's direction, looking to further initiatives to identify untapped talent and guide it towards higher education.

The trick is to get that message over to working-class children. Hence the television adverts, outreach expeditions and Aim Higher roadshows.

Embedding the concept of widening participation in the national consciousness is the legacy Mr Rammell would love to leave behind.

The Conservatives, says Mr Rammell, threaten that. "There's no commitment in the Tory party to widening participation - in fact the reverse," he says. "They want to limit numbers."

Undaunted, Mr Rammell continues to plant ideas in young minds. After listing to the minister's Aim Higher speech, Rachel Bell, a bright Year 9 pupil, declares that she wants to study law and music at Cambridge. She has now been reassured that money would not be a problem.

"I also didn't think universities had pool tables," she adds.

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