UK schools are failing on higher education preparation – so universities must help

Better outreach and greater involvement in exam boards could raise expectations and standards for disadvantaged would-be students, says Martin Stephen

May 9, 2019
Source: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

That only 5 per cent of white working-class children gain places at the UK’s leading universities is a national scandal. But those commentators who lay the failure at the door of admissions tutors are wrong.

As someone who has spent my career in English secondary education, I attribute much of the blame to my own sector. The truth is that after 13 years of education in one of the world’s richest countries, disadvantaged students in England still largely lack the necessary knowledge base to thrive on a demanding university course – particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Universities are not social engineers, and, besides, it is too late to prepare a student at 18 for a rigorous degree course in maths or physics. The London Academy of Excellence – a large, selective sixth-form college in a poor part of London, of which I am the founding governor – shows that such preparation is perfectly possible in state schools. It is simply not being done enough.

That said, it is not good enough for universities to simply throw up their hands and wait for the schools to get their acts together. For a start, they need to put the millions of pounds they spend on access schemes to better use. In their current guise, such schemes – as well as summer schools – too often attract only those already on the path to university, rather than changing a school culture that stops a university application from even appearing on a disadvantaged student’s radar.

There needs to be a sea change in the perceived market for access schemes. It is no use focusing on older pupils. Minds are often made up by the age of 14: schemes need to start with 11- and 12-year-olds, or even earlier.

Moreover, universities need to break the habits of a lifetime and become directly involved in raising school standards. They are too like the hapless farmer who is anxious to harvest the corn but takes no interest in sowing or nurturing it. The most obvious way to do this would be to become involved again in the examination system.

English exam boards are quasi-commercial organisations, in competition with each other and divorced from their end-user. None want their exams to be seen as more difficult than those of their rivals. Yes, A levels were recently made “harder”, but boards have the power to lower grade boundaries, so the actual improvement in standards has been minuscule.

There is absolutely no career incentive for university lecturers to become involved in marking A-level scripts, but this is the route to power in exam boards. And nothing will really change until university people take some of those senior positions.

Universities also need to bring their weight to bear on school inspection. I recently helped to found a new sixth-form STEM college in the Midlands, dedicated to supplying leading universities. In the approval process, next to nothing in the huge volume of papers to be filled out related to what a top student needs to get into a top university. It was as if academic issues were unimportant, the emphasis being on safeguarding and the teaching of “British values”.

Of course, universities cannot take over school inspection. But they could be an immensely powerful lobby to ensure that preparing students for demanding degrees was one of the things that those inspecting sixth forms should prioritise.

Another major problem for disadvantaged students is the lack of top graduates – particularly in maths and science – among their teachers. Such graduates not only deliver the knowledge: they are also superb role models. Yet we continue to labour under the delusion that a physics graduate from Imperial College London must be able to teach a remedial class of 14-year-olds just as well as an A-level set.

One of the reasons that independent schools are so successful in preparing their students is that their maths and science teachers are allowed to teach their subjects. Universities could not only be a powerful lobby for the role of the academic teacher in schools, they could also put their weight behind the larger, specialist sixth forms that are particularly attractive to graduate teachers.

In addition, universities should consider encouraging their research students to spend half a day – or even a whole one – in schools whose pupils would otherwise never meet someone with a degree in maths or science.

Universities may have been abused recently by politicians, but the top ones still enjoy a respect at Westminster that teachers do not. They need to use that power better, pushing for what they need if they are to meet the political imperative to improve their intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds without having to lower entry standards – or see those students drop out later on. The restoration of maintenance grants could be a good place to start.

Universities do not need to take over secondary education. But they do need to be prepared to influence it, rather than merely complain about it.

Martin Stephen is a founding governor of the London Academy of Excellence, co-founder of The National Mathematics and Science College and the former high master of St Paul’s School and Manchester Grammar School.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is very probably the most interesting (& in many ways important!) article I’ve read this’s a shame it’s behind a paywall because it should be widely read and further debated. Both in the UK and here in Australia.
I agree that minds are made up by 11-12 years of age, even earlier... and that is why parents must do more, not universities! This might not be a popular thing to say, but it is the truth.