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Things can only get better? Dream on.

With the Brexit chaos in full swing, it seems that the government is paralysed. This probably means that little time is being devoted to planning for the impending meltdown in higher education. The spectre of the Augar report has cast a fleeting shadow across this week’s reports of financial stress at more institutions. However, Augar is not per se a problem. With no spending plans from 2020 in place, the need for a radical rethink in the impending spending review later this year is of critical importance. With so much uncertainty around, the government may opt for a very short-term plan and prop up universities in the interim. But the problems will not go away and the hope is that ultimately a radical and comprehensive review of all university funding is carried out to provide more confidence in the system and a more stable environment for universities to plan in. The days of government absolving itself from its responsibilities in planning student numbers, and abandoning the system to a false market place, should be over.

Giving students a fair and equal chance.

This should be the overarching concern in any plan. One report this week leads to the conclusion that the idea of fairness and equal opportunity in the school system is comprehensively broken. Reports that a single state school in London has seen 41 of its students accepted to Oxford or Cambridge universities hardly seem believable (The Guardian 15th January 2019 ‘London state school says 41 students offered Oxbridge place’). That is until details of the school emerged. Brampton Manor Academy in Newham established its sixth form in 2012 with the aim of improving the elite university prospects of its students from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. The astounding success this year has been down to hard work and careful focus of resources that appears to mirror the way successful independent schools operate. The school’s motto ‘success through effort & determination’ has not quite shifted across to a classical 'Conatus, et cor eius victoria per' but there is time yet. In the meantime, the students and staff should be congratulated on the outcome of their combined efforts. The school admission criteria to its sixth form show why it works. It is highly selective and offers a broad range of subjects. Several thousand apply for a place across a wide catchment but only around 300 are accepted. Even then the success of its students is astounding.

Things are not improving on the access front overall.

The success of Brampton Manor School, whilst impressive, hides the extent of a wider problem. Calls last week for more grammar school provisio(as summarised in TEFS Friday 11th January 2019 'Break out the life vests: Save as many students and universities as you can') have caused some considerable debate this week. But is this the answer? Iain Mansfield, author of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) article ‘Grammar schools significantly increase the chances of disadvantaged pupils reaching highly-selective universities, especially Oxbridge’ went on this week to try to defend his analysis with ‘Don’t harm opportunities for other people’s children’ . Ending with the statement “So the next time you get squeamish about selection, remember that grammar schools aren’t there to benefit the children of the top 20% – those children will do ok in any school system. And think twice before being so keen to remove opportunities from other people’s children.” seems contradictory and churlish. Indeed, it could be the best argument so far for having no grammar schools as they are not needed. This was followed today by a further defence from Nick Hillman of HEPI in ‘A Friday thought: Should universities do more to help deliver non-selective schooling?’ His summary statement, “If just 10 per cent of the energy spent critiquing our latest paper were now to be spent on creating a new school, it would surely quickly become the best school in the country.” would no doubt dismay those at Brampton Manor School who might see this as trivialising their efforts. It seems there is a long way to go in formulating cogent arguments either way.

HESA data to the rescue?

I
n the meantime, the latest set of HESA data for 2017/2018 students emerged yesterday. TEFS has yet to analyse it in detail, however the relative lack of progress of students from the Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) least advantaged quintile area immediately attracts attention. Whilst the total number of students accessing university from the lower participation area (POLAR Quintile 1) has risen, the proportion has remained stubbornly similar that of previous years. In England the number of first year students in their first degree has risen from 47,230 in 2016/17 to 48,045 in 2017/18. This is reported as success by HESA with the statement, “Of first degree first year students, a higher proportion were from a low participation neighbourhood in 2017/18 compared with the previous four years”. The proportion had risen marginally from 12% to 13%, but it will take decades to reach genuine parity assuming the rise is part of a genuine trend. Bear in mind the total number of university entrants has risen overall. Also bear in mind that HESA lumps together the 87% from the other more advantaged POLAR Quintiles in its overview. This effectively hides the massive disparity in access that continues to exist between POLAR Quintile 1 and POLAR Quintile 5. This might be more openly addressed

What does this all mean?

The snail’s pace with which marginal improvements in access to university for students from disadvantaged areas is a reflection of little change in approach. Outreach initiatives by universities
are useful to a point, but this cannot resolve the disparity. Instead more resources and better schools overall is the answer.

What does the success of Brampton Manor School prove? Simply that there is a pool of talent out there that can be helped with the right approach. Given the chance, their students match the attainment of the best independent schools. Also, that selection at age sixteen works well. A similar approach elsewhere would at least help the more able to reach for something better. This does not need grammar schools. Instead well managed sixth form colleges that are more resourced would seem a better option. This approach might well tip the balance more quickly as the Brampton Manor experiment demonstrates. After all there is a reason that fee paying independent schools thrive. Simply because parents with enough money are not confident in state schools having the resources to deliver what they want. They are buying better attainment that supplements ability. It seems that students from less advantaged backgrounds are likely to do as well if given the same chance.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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