Unfair access to universities: who is really to blame?

In his Sunday Times blog, 16/06/13, Andrew Halls, Headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon argues that the issue that that needs to be addressed is not university entry policies, but the fact that there are still too many children who have learned virtually nothing of any value to anyone – even after thirteen years of schooling.

What do the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Durham have in common? They are among the highest-performing and most popular universities in the UK. They represent standards of achievement, resources and pedagogy that all universities should aspire towards. They have an appeal and reputation that reaches across the world. All true – but sadly not this week’s correct answer. In fact, far from being celebrated for their success, they are under fire for being members of a rather more ignominious group.

Professor Les Ebdon, head of the Office for Fair Access, announced last week that these universities, and their wretched kin (aka, 19 other universities, almost all among the UK’s best), had let us down. Prof Ebdon is not swayed by the old comforts that these universities have world rankings that Luton, where he once held sway, can only dream about, or that a single college in Cambridge has produced more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France. Instead, he has complained that they fell “significantly below” targets for state school entrants last year.

In stern tones, he admonishes them for making “little or no progress” in widening access to pupils from maintained schools.

But what if, as an academic, Prof Ebdon were to look at more than one piece of evidence? After all, is it really likely that Cambridge and Oxford, and their disgraced partners in elitism, prefer to fill their colleges with pupils from independent schools? Anyone who has spent just half an hour with academics at Oxford, Cambridge or indeed anywhere else, will know that the last thing any of them is likely to do is to hold the door open for a public school nonentity, and slam it in the face of a bright, ambitious state school pupil.

The problem is not snobbery – but it is unfairness. By the time a boy or girl is 18 years old and eligible for a place at university, we would all like to think that their schools will have taught them something. The profound and damaging unfairness that needs to be addressed is not university entry policies, but the fact that there are still too many children who have learned virtually nothing of any value to anyone – even after thirteen years of schooling.

Sometimes this is due to poor management of their schools, with discipline running out of control, and teachers unable to get past the first bullet point on their lesson plan (“sit down”.) But in plenty of cases, it is also low aspiration. It is easy to blame this on their families, but one of the causes is the banal and untruthful nature of UK public exams between the mid-1980s, when GCSEs were introduced, to about three years ago, when ministers, head teachers and exam boards suddenly began to tell the truth. Yes, there had been grade inflation; no, the massive surge in top grades didn’t mean anything after all; and yes, UK school children did compare badly, often extremely badly, with their international peers. It is inconceivable that the “race to the bottom” for ever-dumber exam syllabuses did not, in its own way, lower the ceiling on teacher and therefore pupil aspiration.

This week, Ofsted have announced that many state schools are failing to challenge the brightest pupils. With grim inevitability, teacher unions are queuing up to express their outrage.

But we all know it is true. And we know that we must raise the game in our maintained schools if we are to make a real difference to the UK’s children, and give all of them the chance they deserve to fulfil their talents and skills. University quotas might make Les Ebdon feel better – but surely he understands that this is really the worst way of addressing unfairness? It is like reducing the number of starving children not by feeding them, but by telling ourselves they have plenty to eat after all. Children are not made successful just because we all go round saying they are: that was the previous model, and it broke.

This is why I think the new GCSEs outlined by Michael Gove this week are a step forward. There is much more to be addressed, not least the needs of children who are not academic but have other talents. But for those pupils at state schools who want to win fully deserved places at Oxford or Cambridge, the emphasis on knowledge, educational discipline, and the real discovery that comes from their own ambition, their teachers’ enthusiasm, and exams that set the bar high, the new GCSEs should help open doors that have been closed for far too long.

Of course the loss of coursework and the emphasis on sustained writing, on precision, problem-solving and accuracy, means it will all be more challenging. But we need an exam system that recognises that sixteen year olds have capable and inventive minds; they have characters that can cope with rigour; and they have the right to leave their schools as well taught, as stimulated and as well-prepared for top universities as the children whose parents have often made great sacrifices to provide those advantages in other systems.

Click here to read the blog.