Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

“Selective Universities” select students from selective schools

Private school pupils are more likely to go to top universities, despite efforts to widen access, data suggests.

Some 64% of privately educated A-level students got into the most selective universities in 2010-11, against 24% of state school pupils. BBC News Website 8 August 2013: Judith Burns: Private school pupils keep university advantage

Should we be surprised?

Dr Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group which represents 24 of the UK’s most selective universities … added it was important to maintain academic standards and said the progress of too many students continued “to be limited by levels of achievement at school and a lack of advice on A-level subject choices”.

Again should we be surprised?

No of course not, but we hesitate to suggest why.

Prof Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, says:

The efforts of universities in widening access cannot be disputed. However, the overall participation gap between the most and least advantaged remains much too high.

That’s why I will continue to offer challenge and support to universities as they seek to identify, evaluate and share what works to ensure that everyone with the talent to benefit from higher education has an equal opportunity to participate.

Is it just the fault of these “elitist universities”?  I would dispute the idea that the institutions are necessarily “elitist”; they may seek to be an “elite” by being more highly selective than other universities. (One hopes all universities are to some degree “selective”.) So let’s not beat about the bush talking about “selective” universities; this is about elite universities. (Let’s also accept that there are some “public schools” who have no or little history of its pupils going on to university.)

(N.B. in the UK “Public Schools” are fee-charging non-state “private” schools.)

These universities have to work to overcome the perception that they are elitist and posh (whilst maintaining the perception that they are elite). But how do most prospective students get these perceptions? (I do not think that University Challenge is that influential.)

I strongly suspect that they pick up these perceptions from their parents and their teachers. (I would like to see research to see if this suspicion is justified – but suspect that the answers may be too politically unpalatable.)

If you are a prospective student at a public school there is a real chance that your father went to an elite university. There is now also a significant chance that your mother did as well. In fact your parents may well have met in an Oxbridge Quad, or at a Durham or Bristol or Exeter social event, or even on the links at St Andrews. They will have a perception of such elite institutions – and quite probably an expectation that their sprog should go to one. Said sprog will feel parental pressure to do well enough at school to get to such an institution.

If you are not at public school there will be a higher chance that your family has no direct experience of university and if they do it is probably less likely that your family has experience of elite universities (particularly when compared to the families of those at the elite public schools). I can recall prior to going to university I was getting some industrial experience (and money) and was working in a factory where the shop superintendent had strong views about universities. “Look at me”, he said, “an eleven plus failure me. I never went to university and have done OK. What is good enough for me is good enough for my kids – I don’t want them becoming long-haired promiscuous drug taking lay-abouts.”

Will teachers correct these perceptions – after all teaching is a “graduate profession”? If you look on the web sites of many of the public schools the teachers have a fair splattering of MAs (as opposed to MScs – which would tend to indicate that these are Oxbridge complimentary “keep your nose clean” bachelor’s degrees rather than “true masters” degrees from non-Oxbridge universities) – even a few PhDs. Is it fair to at least hypothesise that teachers at public schools – particularly at the leading public schools – went almost exclusively to elite universities and that teachers in the state sector are more likely to have gone to “non-elite” universities?

If that is the case we have a number of understandable problems.

Teachers at public schools will have a better idea of what is required at “elite” universities and may therefore prepare their students more effectively than teachers who have no experience of elite universities – and they must be “different” (as opposed to necessarily “better”) or else we would not see this issue as a problem.

Teachers at public schools will probably make most of their pupils see getting into an elite university as an achievable challenge. And the pupils will feel they are “duty bound” to accept the challenge;

  • their parents have paid a fortune for them to get a “good” education,
  • the school has “honours boards” listing not those who got to university, not even those who got into elite universities, but those who got scholarships to get into Oxbridge.
  • no doubt in chapel and RE lessons the parable of the talents is common and regular fare.

Teachers at some/many state schools will believe that they had a good experience at whatever university they went to and will pass this view onto their students – and this will affect both aspirations and selection of A level subjects.

Many of the teachers that we see at coverage of the conferences of teachers unions seem to appear down-trodden and truculent.  It is quite possible that their views of “elite” universities will be similar to my shop superintendent’s view of universities in general: “Don’t worry pal, Wherever University was good enough for me, you will do fine there – don’t waste your time applying to those elitist universities.”

I am not saying that the social mix of elite universities is not an issue – the current situation has to be bad – both for the students and for the country. But then the social mix of some non-elite universities is not good (in the opposite sense; I doubt many Etonians used to go to their “local” university – when Thames Valley University was in Slough). University-led “outreach” activities such as getting students at elite universities to go out to state schools as “ambassadors” and running summer schools for pupils from “challenged post codes” will not make a sufficient difference. Action is also required in schools and homes.

There is a distinct question that has to be asked before considering any activity relating to “broadening access”.

Is the style of teaching at those public schools with a history of sending a high proportion of its pupils to elite universities a better preparation for the type of study experienced at elite universities? If so, are we certain that the style of study at elite universities is better than the style of study at non-elite universities? (Or is there something about different styles for different students?)

If the answer is “yes”, we have to address something to do with teaching in non-public schools. It is perhaps important to note that public schools are often less hung up about Ofsted reports, national curricula and league table positions – they often make a virtue of developing the individual rather than “teaching to the exam”.

Then we have to do something about aspirations as set by teachers and parents.

Giving all prospective teachers experience of elite universities by forcing them to do their PGCEs (or similar) at elite universities is not likely to work (never mind what PGCE course directors at non elite universities may think!). Conversely, can anything be done to encourage more graduates of elite universities to teach in the state sector? Again I suspect that public schools are more interested in the university that its prospective teachers went to than whether they have specific teaching qualifications – so your Oxbridge MA may find it easier to get employment in a public school than in state schools (which may require qualifications such as BEds or PGCEs). Will we find that Heads and Governing bodies of state schools will want to employ such graduates – after all a major aspect of any recruitment decision is “will they fit in”?

Altering the attitudes of parents (particularly those like my Shop Superintendent – who hopefully is an extreme example) is more difficult. The current government is not making things easier. A bunch of posh-boys (all Oxbridge graduates) lording it over us and (poorly handling) the introduction of tuition fees have made not going to an elite university a much more evenly attractive option.

We should remember that – irrespective of school background – going to (any) University may not be the best choice. A little honesty is required about the need for and benefits of going to university. University has to be more than the place you go to when passing from adolescence to adulthood. Going to university has to be clearly of benefit to the individual in both their eyes and the eyes of those who influence them.

Most parents want the best for their children, so if that involves going to university, that course of action has to have credibility. But can we agree as a society about the relative credibility of, say, doing a media studies degree at a non-elite university compared to say doing philosophy at an elite university? I have a horrible feeling that we can’t.

It would be unfortunate if we can’t, because it may be that the country then divides on class grounds (based on what is familiar), with one group believing that a vocational course taught as a “skills development” process at a “modern” university is best, and the other group believing that an academic course taught as an “intellectual exercise” at a “traditional” university is best.

However, if that is the case the idea that “Private school pupils are more likely to go to top universities” (my italics) no longer holds (or matters) as each side must believe that it has the most appropriate (and therefore “top”) solution to their needs.

But it does matter as your university (rather than your degree subject or grade) is important when considering recruitment into certain professions or companies.

Where do we break the loop?

  1. Home aspirations?
  2. School aspirations?
  3. University Recruiting?
  4. Employment recruiting?

Currently we seem fixated on just number (3).


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