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Somewhere over the rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

This week saw various reports that are the pretext for the impending Augar Review report.
The long-standing myth that high costs of university loans and inadequate maintenance loans helps poorer students into university is being challenged. Yet universities fearful of a loss of income are trying to exert pressure on Philip Augar to maintain the status quo just before his review emerges this month. The basic idea they have is that a ‘free for all’ access to loans will attract those with lower entry grades and this in turn helps less advantaged students. The fact that it opens the door unfairly to many more well off students with low grades is conveniently overlooked. It simply accepts that the school system is inherently unfair and that able students are not likely to reach their potential in attainment if they are from poorer backgrounds. It is accepted that their education is of a lower standard and their home life is not conducive to learning. The counter argument from better off families is that they have invested a lot in their children’s education and those with lower attainment should not be allowed to overtake them on the last lap. Of course this also means that the leaks from Augar about setting relatively low minimum entry grades – equivalent to 3 Ds at A Level – are dismissed as simply favouring those with resources. With ‘Denying loans to students with weaker A-levels will ‘penalise poor families’ the Guardian this week set out some interesting arguments. However, they quoted an unnamed prominent Conservative MP as agreeing that the predicted Augar approach would not stop students from wealthier backgrounds who perform badly at A-level from going to university because their parents could pay for them to do retakes or simply bypass the loans restriction by paying their fees; “Tarquin still gets into university. But you create a secondary modern/grammar school situation where some people are just written off.” Certainly that is likely and to be expected, but it cannot be defended surely.

Meanwhile somewhere over the rainbow.

Rainbows look fine but they are always accompanied by rain. Sean Coughlan for the BBC interviewed several would be university students from England this week. They are the products of a charitable scheme Villiers Park for talented students from poorer families. The aim being to enhance their education to the equivalent level of those with greater advantages with “We deliver unique programmes for high ability students aged 14-19 from less advantaged backgrounds.” The fact that this is working well in itself demonstrates the unfairness that holds back many more. One student summed it up well with “Wealthier youngsters are on a parallel educational fast track of more tutors, more resources, more work experience, more contacts" another says that if the fees were to be cut to £5,000 or £6,000, it would make a "massive difference" to the level of debt and she would switch to applying to university. But did the reporter have to imply surprise that she was “articulate and pragmatic” in noting that more choices go to those "who have the money"? Maybe it’s no surprise that Villiers Park has opened their eyes to the unacceptable gaps in the opportunities that exist for them.

The government position.

This has been articulated by Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, who wants to expand technical education. However, he comes under considerable criticism in a Higher Education Policy Institute guest blog by Scott Kelly ‘When it comes to deciding what subjects should be studied, the gentleman in Whitehall really doesn’t know best’. He postulates that Hind’s position comes from that of a right wing think tank, Onward, that is a self-declared “ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders”. Their position is “We believe in a mainstream conservatism – one that recognises the value of markets”. A recent contribution to the university debate ‘A question of degree’ was written by two conservative MPs whose very different backgrounds lend themselves to a fairly credible perspective. Neil O’Brien went to All saints Catholic College Huddersfield, a comprehensive formed by merging a grammar and secondary modern school in 1973. Then onto Greenhead College, a former Grammar school and now sixth for college, before becoming an Oxford PPE graduate. In contrast, Gillian Keegan attended St Thomas Becket Catholic High School in Huyton and started work as an apprentice in a car factory at sixteen. She worked her way out of the situation through getting better jobs and education later. She has a bachelor's degree in Business Studies from Liverpool John Moore's University.

They conclude that there are too many degrees courses that are not value for money as they don’t lead to higher pay, “At the moment too many of those young people are being sold a false promise.” They advocate a tax cut for graduates repaying loans instead of cutting fees. The conclusion is that, “You should be able to get to the top jobs and top qualifications whether you go to university, or learn on the job, or go to a technical college.” However, the problem is that those with family resources have wide choices. With less wealth, the choices narrow down. My own education was strikingly similar to that of Neil O’Brien. Whilst studying for A-levels in 1971, I was informed by the careers advisor that university was “not for the likes of me”. I was advised to go into a bank to train as a clerk. Strange advice as I was in the advanced class going a year ahead of the others into four science A-Levels. I still wonder what the man was thinking. I declined his class-ridden advice.

More confidence please.

Perhaps all I needed was more confidence and courage to succeed. The small matter of working part-time to make ends meet is a minor one. The idea of confidence as the solution was articulated in advice from the redoubtable Damian Hinds in Education Secretary sets out five foundations to build character earlier this week. In an alarming speech from an unashamedly ‘middle class’ perspective, he spoke of "public school confidence" and the need for activities such as youth groups, cadets, scouts, guides, sport and voluntary work. No concession was made to those in poverty working their way through their A-Levels and then into colleges or university. Courage is mentioned six times as a virtue with “Maybe you can’t directly teach a child to be confident but you can certainly introduce them to opportunities, situations, where they need to be courageous”. It’s of course not really courageous if you have a safety net. Going without a safety net takes courage perhaps. In his memoirs, ‘With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa’, the 'articulate and pragmatic' twenty year old US marine, Eugene Sledge, described his role in battles in the pacific in 1944. On courage he wrote, “Courage meant overcoming fear and doing one’s duty in the presence of danger, not being unafraid.” Damian Hinds comes from a fortunate generation that mostly were not called upon to test their courage in that way. Those that have done so might relate to the terrible observations of Sledge.

Damian Hinds also suggested in his speech that “You learn a lot from Atticus Finch”. That may be the case but removing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the GCSE curricula in 2014 under the Gove reforms doesn’t help to strengthen his position. He might consider the perspective of Atticus Finch who also said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

The twenty year old Eugene Sledge also observed that “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for. With privilege goes responsibility.” Precisely. Let us make our country good enough to live in for everyone equally .

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


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