What will we do for those whose parents can't work the system?

We know what must be done to widen access, says Deborah Eyre, who hopes the latest review will finally grasp the nettle

May 8, 2008

We know that students from certain ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds are underrepresented in higher education. We know the issues and debate them endlessly. Now the National Council for Educational Excellence (led by Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter) is to look at them yet again.

I was director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) for five years, which gave me the privilege of working with more than 150,000 of the country's brightest secondary-school students. These students gave a very clear insight into why the situation exists, why it is a peculiarly British problem and what needs to be done about it.

The problem could be summed up as our national preoccupation with "destiny". Our education system has an inbuilt set of expectations for different groups of students. We even have a term for those performing against type - succeeding against the odds.

If you are a middle-class youngster, you are expected to progress to university. Many students come under pressure from parents and schools to work hard, study "sensible subjects" and show wily cunning when applying to university. Subject choice is a balancing act between what students think they might like to do and what they think they might get a place to do. These families leave little to chance. They cross-examine teachers at parents' evenings and take steps as soon as any fall-off in progress becomes apparent. They are not averse to private tutoring if necessary. They expect their children to achieve, and mostly they do.

For independent-school students, the expectations are the same or even higher. The same monitoring occurs, but it's done by the school rather than by parents. The same interventions are made when a student starts to fall behind. Most independent schools invest in careers guidance, an element sadly lacking in state schools, and devote time to understanding the complexities of the system to get a "best fit" for students. They specialise in offering a bespoke education that helps maximise students' talents. After all, that is what parents are paying for.

By contrast, able children from underrepresented groups experience a very different set of circumstances. They simply do not have anyone batting for them as an individual. At NAGTY, I met many, many parents from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, but not one lacked ambition for their offspring - they merely lacked a sense of how to navigate the system. They believe uncritically whatever the school tells them about capabilities, and they do not monitor progress as closely as their middle-class counterparts. It's a question of parental confidence. Of course some schools do an excellent job of supporting and monitoring, but even here they are likely to fall short on guidance - it is not just about which university a student should apply to.

Students have often narrowed their options earlier by dropping key subjects before GCSE level or choosing subjects that they later learn are not well regarded by many universities. At GCSE level, they have only a hazy idea of what A-level grades universities require and a very limited sense of available options. They need proper guidance. State schools spend less time than their independent counterparts on preparing students, and the lower performing the school, the less time is devoted to this issue.

When it comes to deciding where to apply, many students remain confused. They may, post-Aimhigher, see higher education as a viable destination, but they have often had experience only of their local provider - their knowledge of the rest of the sector is limited. They also remain deeply concerned about finance and "fitting in".

So I await Professor Smith's recommendations with interest. Let's hope they have more realism and more bite than those of his predecessors. We know what has to be done. The past ten years have seen much local innovation, increased understanding and data-gathering. What we need now is a more strategic approach. My advice would be: if you want to know what really works, listen to the students. They are quite capable of designing the solutions. I wonder if Professor Smith asked for their opinions?

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