Birds of a feather

Nothing I have read so far about the Social Mobility Commission Report into access to Russell Group universities that was published earlier today has mentioned the need for state schools to be able to access the best teachers.

The present gap between state and private school pupils’ access to this group of universities is certainly dire in many cases, but unless we can adequately staff our state schools it won’t improve. On top of that problem there is the unspoken issue of revision classes and private tutoring often used when some parents are concerned that their child’s school may not be delivering the grades required for entry to a particular university.

Much has been made by some commentators of the fact that state school pupils study the wrong subjects for entry to Russell Group universities, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland where, Edinburgh University apart, the Russell Group institutions generally meet or exceed their state school targets. Leaving aside for a moment the Oxbridge issue, there seem to be a group of Russell Group universities that stand out as being the farthest from their benchmarks; Bristol and Durham in particular, followed by Exeter, Newcastle and a group of London institutions that includes Imperial, UCL and LSE. Although Leeds isn’t in this list, the size of the university means if it did more to attract state school pupils it could also make an impact on the shortfall.

It is to be hoped that these state school pupils that don’t make it Russell Group universities do still attend a university, and that they are rewarded with teaching that stretches their able minds. Then there is the issue, touched on in the Commission’s report, of what happens after university. If employers only attend Russell Group universities looking for new talent, then unequal access to these universities is certainly acting as a filter. But, as the Report identifies, requiring upfront fees for postgraduate study can also be a powerful barrier where private sector employers require a post-graduate qualification. Of course, the egalitarian Mr Gove has solved that problem in education by allowing some schools to take into teaching those with no training at all. But, in reality, that is a different argument. There is also the question of how instrumental candidates from state schools are in selecting both ‘A’ level subjects and degree courses. It is no doubt better to be employed with a degree from a local university than both a NEET and a Russell Group graduate. However, the evidence of the need for state school pupils to achieve higher grades to obtain entry clearly suggests that something unfortunate is going on in England. The Commission might like to republish its findings with just students domiciled in England included: the position then might be even starker than at present.

As I hinted earlier, the need to continue to ensure a supply of sufficient teachers for all schools is a necessary condition if even the present situation is to be maintained, let alone improved. Regular readers will know of my fear in that respect. If they come true, who attends what university still be a matter of even more concern in 2020, and probably well into the next decade.

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