Fighting injustice with injustice

Tom Bennett is a man who believes that the beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that you know nothing. In other words, he knows nothing, and he knows it. Every week he’ll be chasing his own tail or shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he’ll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week: Why tinkering with University entrance is the worst way to promote social mobility.


Tom Bennett

Every so often someone looks at the economic demographics of university entrants and spots that children from poorer backgrounds seem to be disproportionately unrepresented, compared with their more affluent peers. So far, so wrong. But then they make the obvious error of saying that the best way to fix this is by forcing universities to take quotas of children from certain backgrounds, or the other equally wrong alternative, making a blanket decision to make lower offers for these children.

Let me dig into my bag of last summer’s metaphors by saying that this is like noticing that some people never had the chance to train for the Olympics, so we should make allowances for them by giving Usain Bolt a bag of spanners to carry. There may be many factors behind inequality in society, but fixing them at the end of the process isn’t the answer. The real issues are buried further back, the roots of inequality are sunk deep into the soil of society; in homes, in wages, in the lottery of birth and the inequities of the polis. Universities represent, at some level, an almost Utopian level of universal suffrage: no matter your class, background, ethnicity or connections, all you need to enter are the grades.

Of course, a million other factors skew even this; the child who goes to a school with poor behaviour, or poor teaching, or one where nobody pushes them to aspire. I once worked in a school where the majority of kids aspired to work in Asda (I have nothing against our foremost chain of budget family shopping; merely that I hope most kids don’t aspire to stacking shelves). But the correct reply to injustice isn’t more injustice. And giving poorer kids lower offers is a massive inequity. It disadvantages kids from backgrounds that, through no fault of theirs other than birth, offered them more opportunities.

Universities can’t fix inequality

But it’s far easier for a politician to put pressure on universities to fix this. Why? Because they can. Because it’s an easier response than to try to identify the roots of poverty in society. When the only tool you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. Well, this is a sledgehammer trying to fix a bug in a computer program.

Plus, universities already have the scope to do this, on a case-by-case basis, because they are driven by a fundamental need to entice the best students - they have pass-rate targets to make too. While there may still be pockets of individual admissions officers and departments that err on the side of surname, it’s madness to suggest that the vast majority of universities want anything other than the best and the brightest.

I spent some time at Cambridge a few years ago as a Teacher Fellow, and the efforts such institutions make to entice and encourage applications from state schools is enormous. A huge problem Russell Group universities face is, ironically, a paucity of applicants from unrepresented sectors. I know many, many students with great grades who just don’t think that Oxbridge is for ‘people like them’. But mental cages are the hardest ones from which to escape. It isn’t helped by some teachers and schools passing on their own mistrust of such places to the students, in a process of learned helplessness.

The devil of it is that such things are advocated by Alan Milburn and David Willetts. By treating poor kids like poor kids, by lowering the bar they need to reach, we patronise them. We also devalue the notion of education. Universities can already make up their own minds about a candidate’s potential - they aren’t entirely stupid in such matters. ‘There, there,’ we say to the kids, ‘You’re poor, we don’t expect you to do so well.’ The hell with that.

Read Tom’s previous blogs;

Who is Tom Bennett

Tom is a full-time teacher in an inner-city school and he’ll be blogging for us weekly on pedagogy and classroom management. Tom offers regular behaviour advice on the TES website and runs the TES behaviour forum. He also writes for the TES magazine, trains teachers across the UK and is the author of The Behaviour Guru, Not Quite a Teacher and Teacher.