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.