Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Independent Schools, Fair Access and Social Mobility

Education is a key vehicle of social mobility.

As one of that select band of pupils who gained an Oxbridge place whilst enjoying free school meals, few know the value of a good education better than me. At 11 I was lucky enough to win a place at King Edward's Grammar School Chelmsford, then the top state school in the country. 15 O-levels and 4 A-levels later I went up to Fitzwilliam Cambridge (but not at the same time as Vince Cable!) on a full grant. My brother was not so lucky, he went to the local sink comprehensive school, where he had his head flushed down the toilet and left school with no qualifications. We have both done well in life in own ways - he is now a successful hairdresser with his own salon - but we have had very different journeys and opportunities in life simply because of our schooling.

In the debate about fair access, it is very easy, indeed fashionable, to portray independent schools as the villains of the piece, as seen by Vince Cable's observation:
"Pupils from independent schools are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than children with free school meals. That is the imbalance. We are trying to address it."
Very few can doubt that Independent Schools are very good at educating young people. These schools have an outstanding record of enabling their pupils to get good grades and giving them the best possible chance of gaining a place at a good university.

Let us be clear, pupils from most HMC and GSA schools do have advantages. They are very well taught, they have almost certainly benefited from smaller class sizes throughout their education, and levels discipline are typically at a higher level than in the Maintained sector. Furthermore they are surrounded by people with high aspirations, not to mention being helped by designated staff who take the time and trouble to help find the right university course and to give advice on UCAS personal statements. Ultimately these factors are why parents choose spend their their hard-earned cash on an independent education rather than on other things. However, what is being lost in this debate is that independent schools are not the problem here. The real problem is that large parts of the maintained sector are not able to deliver the excellence of education that we have in our Independent Schools. That is a matter of leadership, vision, resources and Government funding priorities.

Far from being the problem, I would go so far as to argue that Independent Schools are a significant part of the solution for two reasons:

First, we should not lose sight that Independent Schools play a vital role in providing well-qualified entrants to UK Universities in the SIV subjects – strategically important and vulnerable. Without Independent Schools, departments in subjects like Engineering, Natural Science and Modern Foreign Languages in many of our leading Universities would be unable to function.

Secondly, not every pupil at an Independent School comes from a privileged background. Indeed nearly all independent schools are putting significant amounts of money into bursaries to enable young people from families that could not afford the fees to attend the school. Take two examples from here at Berkhamsted.

The first was educated at Berkhamsted from the age of thirteen. He was brought up by a single parent on a low income. The school not only paid all of his fees, but also provided financial support so that he could go on school trips and sports tours. He had a stunning school career, culminating in being Head Boy and achieving A*A*A*AA at A-level, before taking up a place to read Medicine at Edinburgh. Similarly, the other joined the school in the sixth form on a full scholarship from a local comprehensive school, before going up to Oxford to read PPE. Throughout their time at school only a handful of staff were aware of the level of support that they were receiving. It is highly unlikely that either pupil would have achieved either the A-level grades or gained places at these top universities without the opportunities that Berkhamsted provided.

And Berkhamsted is by no means unique in this matter. Almost every head of a HMC or GSA school could give similar examples. Independent schools are committed to widening access and to providing opportunities for young people to get the grades to be able to progress on to a top university and "to better themselves".

The Media Debate
Ebdon confirmed as university access chief - BBC News 21/02/2012
I'll get places for the poor, says new university access watchdog - The Independent 21/02/2012
Russell Group attacks university admissions targets - The Telegraph 21/02/2012
Cable questioned over appointment of Les Ebdon as university access tsar - The Guardian 21/02/2012
Comment: Simon Carr - Ebdon won his elite place though he failed the exam - The Independent 21/02/2012
Blog: University access should be based on merit - but how do you measure it? - The Guardian 21/02/2012

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