Opinion: From Tottenham to the top

As the gateway to the professions, universities must do all they can, including considering context in admissions, to ensure fair access, says David Lammy

January 24, 2010

As we say in Parliament, I should declare an interest.

I’m a black British man who grew up in the inner city among a family where there was much love but little money. Thanks to a bit of natural ability, some luck and a lot of help and support, I grew up to become first a barrister and then an MP.

I still see lots of children like I used to be around the area I now represent in Parliament, an area that is one of the most ethnically diverse and least materially privileged in London. And I wonder whether they’re going to get the same chances I did.

I know that youngsters who grow up in Tottenham have no less to offer this country and the world than those who grow up in Kensington and Chelsea.

I know, too, that it’s wrong – morally, ethically, politically and economically wrong – to pigeonhole someone for life just because of where they come from.

That fact compels me to take a critical look at the record of the Government of which I’ve been a part for the past eight years.

It’s clear that, since 1997, we’ve made some progress in breaking down the barriers that still stand between young people and the fulfilment of their potential. Average standards in state schools are higher today than they were a decade ago, and so are the results that our young people are achieving at GCSE and A level. The numbers of people going to university are at an all-time high, and the social mix of today’s undergraduates is richer and more varied than it has ever been before.

But while recognising our successes, we must recognise that there remains a long way to go before we can claim to have delivered on our vision of a truly fair, truly equal Britain.

That realisation led us to set up the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, led by Alan Milburn, which reported last year. It found that despite all this progress, access to the professions can all too often be limited to the privileged few.

There is no quick-fix solution. We have accepted the majority of the recommendations in the Milburn report, and they will form the basis for long-term improvement. Universities, schools, the Government and the professions themselves will all have their role to play. There are three things most likely to make a difference.

First, we need to provide effective information, advice and guidance to children, young people and adults at all stages of life.

Second, we must ensure that access to higher education is based on aptitude, attainment and potential, irrespective of background.

And third, the professions themselves must take action to open up opportunities in work experience, recruitment, training and progression. I’m very proud that, in this, the law is setting a good example for other professions to follow.

All the professions know that they must do more to promote fairer access. Senior representatives from 60 of them have agreed to take part in our relaunched Gateways to the Professions Collaborative Forum. We will also ask the professions to report individually on the barriers they believe are stopping talented people accessing them and then develop a strategy to remove the obstacles.

The route towards the top of almost any profession starts at university. So we need programmes such as Aimhigher to help encourage young people to apply. And we need universities, including the most selective institutions, to become progressively more open to talent wherever it comes from.

That’s why the context of educational achievement should be taken into account in admissions procedures. It is also crucial that opportunities be made available for those who want to train and enter the professions later in life. We are already well on the way to establishing a more flexible higher education system and ways of working, but more must be done.

The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, launched last year, has been asked to ensure that finance is not a barrier to higher education. And we believe there is still too great a divide between the academic and vocational. A new apprenticeships scholarship programme will now ensure that the best apprentices can go on to higher education.

After almost 13 years of progress, there is indeed still much that remains to be done. Our shared potential for the future is the potential of our young people, whether they’re on the streets of Tottenham or elsewhere. They all deserve a fair chance. We must ensure they get it.

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