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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.