University outreach is too little, too late

There was widespread coverage this week of news that ‘top universities are failing to open up to the poor’. Professor Les Ebdon, the Head of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) which oversees university recruitment, acknowledged that despite considerable efforts and many millions of pounds of expenditure, “the most selective universities had made little or no headline progress in increasing access in recent years.”

This is not surprising, nor is it the fault of the universities concerned. The Russell Group run some very impressive outreach programmes encouraging students from under-represented groups to apply to Britain’s leading universities. (See this post from the director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford). The same universities are busy producing teaching resources to stretch and stimulate Sixth Form students in the hope that more students from under-represented backgrounds will achieve the grades needed for university admission.

And this is the crux of the problem. Selective universities can increase the number of applicants from under-represented groups, but if these applicants do not have the excellent knowledge and skills (built up over years of high quality education) to succeed on demanding undergraduate courses, then they won’t be admitted and participation rates will remain low.

This is a problem that can’t truly be solved by university outreach, nor by lowering entrance requirements for certain groups; it is a problem that can only be really tackled by sustained and considerable school improvement starting in the early years. The seeds of educational underachievement are sown early, some taking shape even before formal schooling begins. It is thus essential that the school system from reception onwards does everything it can to maximise pupil talents and encourage ever higher levels of aspiration and attainment.

The current government wants to improve state education. It is trying to use a range of techniques to do so including structural reforms (the academy and free schools programme) and examination overhaul. These changes may bring about modest educational gains in some schools, but a significant national improvement in educational standards will only be possible with a substantial increase in funding.

A world class education system that maximises the life chances of every child is expensive. Those parents who pay for an independent education know this.

It may be that the British government alone can no longer afford the cost of excellent schools, in which case politicians should be straight with the electorate (as they have been with university funding) and start to explore alternatives whereby what the state can afford is enhanced by ‘private’ money from families, businesses and the charitable sector. A starting point may lie in the report issued by the Sutton Trust which found England’s highest performing comprehensives and academies are significantly more socially selective than the average state school and other schools in their localities. One of the key reasons for this is the house price premium that exists in the catchments of good state schools. It is not just independent school parents who are paying to access a good school; some state school parents are doing so too by paying over-inflated house prices to live near a top performing school and thus maximise the chances of their children being admitted.

One study suggested that the house price premium for living close to a good state school could be up to £92,000. The house price premium has two negative effects: it prices some children from poorer families out of the best state schools and may help to explain why such students are under-represented in our top universities. It is also a perverse investment in education as, unlike with independent school fees, none of the money expended finds is way into schools but is instead locked up in bricks and mortar. To individual parents this makes sense as they should get their money back when they sell their property, but for the nation as a whole sinking money into inert residential assets rather than spending it on raising the level of educational attainment is not sensible.

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