Michael Gove and David Cameron are pulling up the ladder of opportunity

By abolishing AS-levels, the government risks making university education the preserve of a rich elite.

The former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins recently told Cherwell, the Oxford university newspaper, that if she were an admissions tutor for the university she wouldn't "want a Tyrone in her tutor group" when she could have a "Cecil". In a brilliant retort, a young student called Tyrone wrote an open letter to her pointing out that while he was the only Tyrone in Oxford, there were no "Cecils" at all.

Of course the wider point is still true - despite years of progress, there are still too few pupils from comprehensive state schools and low income backgrounds that get into our top universities. Labour made efforts to address this in government - the proportion of 18 year olds from the bottom socio-economic groups going to university increased during our time in office. Although more still needed to be done, the gap was narrowing. This government risks making it wider.

Private school pupils continue to get the lion's share of places at top universities. Sixty four per cent of pupils from independent schools went on to the most selective universities in 2010-11, compared with 24 per cent from state schools. According to figures from the Department for Education for 2010-11, there are some parts of the country where not a single teenager gets into Oxbridge and very few get into the most competitive universities. It cannot be right that only two per cent of young people in Barking and Dagenham get into a Russell Group university, while 20 per cent of those in Buckinghamshire do.

The fear is that social mobility is getting worse under David Cameron and Michael Gove and that a university education is increasingly becoming the preserve of a rich elite. A survey of vice chancellors from the top universities in the UK found that nearly two-thirds oppose Michael Gove's decision to scrap AS-levels as a qualification that counts toward final grades for pupils at 18. They believe the change would hold back state school pupils and those from lower income backgrounds. As a spokesperson from Cambridge put it, the changes would "jeopardise over a decade's progress towards fairer access".

Michael Gove and David Cameron are pulling up the ladder of opportunity behind them. The evidence shows that many pupils from poorer backgrounds gain confidence from getting good AS-level results which gives them the drive to apply to our top universities. Michael Gove wants to hamper their aspiration.

I was the first student from Southgate Comprehensive to go to Oxford. We have to do better for the next generation - I want to see far more working class pupils go to university, particularly to our top institutions. The most important thing is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools - so we've said we would expand successful schemes like Teach First, will support the establishment of a College of Teaching and incentivise bright graduates to teach in poorer regions and more challenging schools.

We will build on the success of programmes we started in government like London Challenge, which saw schools in the capital become some of the best in the country. We would expand regional challenges to drive up school performance in areas where too few pupils go to university. We would reform the curriculum to ensure that young people from all backgrounds are getting the speaking, presentation and communication skills they need to succeed at university interviews. And finally, we would restore AS-levels as a progressive qualification, to ensure those from lower income backgrounds gain the confidence to apply to university.

As young people wait nervously for their A-level results this week, I am angry that this government is undermining the chances for state school pupils to get into our best universities. They are desperately out of touch, and should change their plans.

David Cameron and Michael Gove at a meeting on education in Number 10 Downing Street on 17 January 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.