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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.