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 Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.