Universities and schools should “ride the nerd wave” of role models such as Brian Cox and Mark Zuckerberg to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for higher education.
This was among the suggestions made at a conference, organised by educational charity the Brilliant Club, that explored how the link between household income and admission to the UK’s most selective universities could be broken.
Dan Abramson, headteacher of King’s College London Mathematics School, told a panel session that the key issue was to provide children with more positive role models.
“We have the opportunity at the moment to ride the nerd wave,” he said. “There are many characters out there who have made their reputations in a way that is utterly [through their] academic [background].”
“That is inspiring to children, and they will understand that comes from the academic link,” Mr Abramson added.
Michael Arthur, the president and provost of University College London, argued that it was important to get more pupils studying “academic” subjects in school.
He described how he had been surprised to discover on a visit to his old comprehensive school in Essex that it had just one student studying history.
“It’s not just about attainment – it’s about attainment of the right GCSEs and A levels in order to gain access to the country’s research-intensive universities,” Professor Arthur said.
Ed Byrne, the principal of King’s, said that some children were held back by the “lack of aspiration” that their families had for them.
Providing more diverse pathways into higher education and then between institutions would help young people to fulfil their potential, he suggested.
The conference, held at King’s on 8 July, also heard a warning from Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, that changes to the school exam system could hamper mobility.
Many universities had used AS-level grades to assess the potential of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, he said, but fewer students are expected to gain these as in future they will be a stand-alone qualification that will not contribute towards an A level.