1st September 2011 Articles
Universities across England will today find out how much they will be allowed to charge students to study for degree courses. There is no getting away from the fact that fees approaching £9,000 a year will be off-putting to teenagers from poorer families. And this against a background where even now very few of them go on to top universities.
Four elite independent schools and one 6th form college in Cambridge send more students to Oxbridge than 2,000 comprehensives, according to a study last week.
Radical change is needed to counter this virtual apartheid within our education system. The elite private schools – all of them are charities, believe it or not – should all be setting up academies and become directly engaged in providing state-funded education by means of these independent state schools, extending their excellent academic teaching and success at university entrance to more deprived communities.
Equally important is for every state secondary school and academy to focus on recruiting a cadre of teachers from top universities. Private schools have large numbers of such teachers, with the academic background and personal experience essential to preparing their students to follow in their footsteps and go on to these universities themselves. However, state schools and academies – particularly those located in poorer areas – have few if any such teachers.
Most pupils in these schools are already handicapped by coming from families without a university tradition. Without at least some teachers who are high-achieving graduates from top universities, they are doubly handicapped and stand virtually no chance of getting into one of these universities themselves.
This is where the excellent Teach First charity comes in.
Teach First recruits exceptional graduates – over 770 this year – and places them in groups in schools and academies in poorer areas. It is creating a movement of teachers committed to boosting achievement, aspiration and opportunity for children from less advantaged backgrounds.
In the hands of great school leaders, Teach First can make a spectacular difference. Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, one of the most deprived parts of Inner London, this year secured ten Cambridge places and dozens more offers from other Russell Group universities. Mossbourne is one of Teach First’s partner schools.
Teach First is uniquely placed to help universities broaden the social background of their student intake. So here is the next urgently needed education reform. Universities should be supporting Teach First, actively promoting it among their students and financially supporting them to join the scheme, using a small fraction of their income from higher fees for this purpose. The Office of Fair Access (Offa), the government body responsible for ensuring fair access to higher education, should hold them to account in doing so, through the access agreement which each university has to agree with Offa as a condition of charging fees.
Universities have tried hard, but so far they have systematically failed to broaden their student recruitment. The Russell Group of most selective universities currently invests over £75 million a year in access initiatives but a mere one in six students at these universities are from lower socio-economics backgrounds. In 2008, out of half a million applicants to higher education, only five per cent were from lower skilled families, whilst one in three of those admitted to Oxford and Cambridge come from just 100 elite schools.
Top universities routinely bewail the failure of state schools to send them their brightest and best, and to teach them well enough for them to be given places even when they apply. Now they have a chance to do something other than complain. By supporting Teach First – financially and promotionally, not just rhetorically – they can act radically and positively to transform their social intake. They can practice the social justice they preach.
Offa needs to be less passive and make support for Teach First a key component of access agreements. By this means, Teach First could easily double in size over the next few years, expanding the pool of the highest-achieving university graduates available to teach in schools and academies in the most challenging areas.
All this needs to happen now. Otherwise those £9,000 fees could make an already dire situation worse.