If in doubt, blame the schools…

I woke this morning to quite a dispiriting discussion on the Today programme.

The topic was social mobility, and the presenter, Ed Stourton, was interviewing Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust charity about a report the trust is about to publish. This will show, it was said, how independent school pupils with similar grades to those from the state sector are “far more likely to apply to leading research universities”.

So far, fair enough, and I should say at the start that I like Ed Stourton and think the Sutton Trust does good work in highlighting the issue of the dominance of leading universities and many of the professions  by the privately educated.

But what depressed me about the interview was that the two of them seemed to arrive at a consensus that there was only one set of people responsible for this national scandal: teachers in state schools. This view was not challenged.

Dr Elliot Major stated that the trust’s research had found that some state teachers would not recommend their pupils for Oxbridge, even if they had good grades, while some schools viewed “gifted and talented” schemes, which aim to identify and nurture academic pupils, as elitist. Therefore, much of the fault lay with the schools.

I have no grounds to quibble with the trust’s analysis of what goes on in at least some schools. Raising aspirations, if they need to be raised, is important. But it does seem to me that to try to pin all or even most of the “blame” on to teachers and schools for what is a very complex problem is effectively to trivialise it. The Today programme should have sought out alternative viewpoints.

 Why is this complex? Well, I think that simply looking at varying application rates for Russell group universities between different categories of pupils and viewing this, in itself, as scandalous is simplistic. It may also say just as much about the prejudices of those involved in this debate as it does about the policies and views of schools.

In my view, it is not necessarily always the case that, even for an academic child, their best choice in life at 18 will be to go to a Russell Group university. It might be the case that a child from a more privileged background who applies to go to university does so not because this is the best for them in the long run, but because their parents would not countenance anything other than university for them. Similarly, a teenager from a state school may have looked at the option of going to university and then considered a potentially well-paid alternative career such as plumbing and decided university was not for them. The two parties in this interview imply that the latter person is simply wrong, and that they have not been given the correct “guidance”. This is patronising and implies a view of the world that university is always the better option.

The powerful forces of class and culture should also not be overlooked in this debate. Ed Stourton at one stage expressed surprise that anyone, in this day and age, could be put off university by thinking it “not for them”. Well, in turn I was astonished by this reaction. Despite the undoubted good work that Oxbridge and other selective universities do in trying to encourage applications from those who might not be pushed to apply by their parents, for me it’s far from surprising why a child from a less well-off background might feel slightly intimidated by an Oxbridge quad. For a public school pupil, these surroundings might just be an extension of the school buildings with which many of them will be familiar. To understate hugely, this is not the case for someone from an inner-city estate. Breaking down the cultural barriers between the two is likely to be complex and difficult, and, not just a job for teachers. It is not surprising, given that the culture of Oxbridge in particular is one with which many private school pupils will be more familiar than those from the state sector, that on average pupils from private schools are more likely to apply to it.

Above all, Oxbridge or other research universities will not be for everyone. A child from any background who rejects it should not be seen as automatically having done the wrong thing. It should be remembered that the Sutton Trust exists to promote more state school pupils going to such institutions. While this aim may be laudable in itself, it does suggest quite a one-eyed view of what might be seen to matter in the world,  which could do with being questioned and challenged.

This might seem to be tangential to the subject matter of “education by numbers” and in a way it is. But I think there is a connection here. Once again, numbers are quoted with a force which would suggest an unarguable view of the unfairness of a particular situation. Yet this is only the case given some fairly powerful assumptions, which remain unspoken, such as the view that university is always best, for everyone with a choice. I loved university. But I wouldn’t want to suppose that everyone who rejects it has simply been badly advised.

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