I used to work in a school in one of the poorest areas in London; unemployment of both parents was the norm. The careers adviser told me that the two most common ambitions the students had when asked were 'international rap star' and - wait for it - 'Maybe a job in ASDA.' The first was just as bad as the second: insanely optimistic fantasies are as crushing as no hopes at all. That was the first time I encountered the bipolarity of destitute ambition.
We're in the middle of exam results Carnivale right now, and it's a harrowing time for many: teachers, anxious to punch the ticket of performance related pay, and students, anxious about their own golden tickets. Some of the pupils I've spoken to have gone through to the next round already, or skipping through adjustment; others are wading through clearance.
One call recurs at this time of year: Universities should adjust offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Les Ebdon (Head of the Office for Fair Access) thinks so, encouraging universities to gamble a stamp on talented, possibly underperforming students.Universities, he claims, are groaning under their middle-class burden, or 'safe bets' as he calls them. Tertiary institutions are playing it safe by recruiting students with good grades who are likely to be able to complete the courses and therefore ensure the Universities get to bank the fees. Accepting kids with good grades. Can you imagine? The very thought.
This ignores a few complications. For a start, universities already pop the synovial fluid in their vertebrae in an attempt to recruit disadvantaged students. The higher up the Russell Tree you go, the more baroque and overt the efforts they make to mine the workhouses. Universities have not been sitting on their hands over this problem, and Offa knows it. Secondly, top universities already consider a student's background in the admission process. The idea that Cambridge and Oxford don't want poor, bright kids, is a nonsense. All they care about is - let's be fair - converting the best students into the best graduates. It is a lazy prejudice to imagine that Oxbridge interviews aim to marginalise any class; they are desperate for the brightest kids, and if they can find that in a pupil whose grades don't dazzle due to circumstance, they are indecently keen to overlook that formality. For example, I know of one student who arrived in the UK at KS4 as a refugee with little English or formal education of any kind. But he shone at maths and with assistance, ended up at Cambridge. So context is already accounted for.
To ask universities to take a chance with students who don't have the grades on a wider scale is to defeat the objective of the university admission process: to select pupils who are capable of finishing university, and well. It is interesting that few people will publicly support academic selection at 11 these days, but are happier to admit it at the age of 18. That's another discussion, but accept it we do, otherwise we could all turn up for the subject we wanted and suddenly there's be a lot more people studying maths at Oxford. Can you imagine the psychology courses? Christ, lectures would be like the Superbowl.
Spend any amount of time as a teacher and you'll come across a lot of ambition, but less often encounter that ambition matched with the pragmatism and the grit that it takes to realise that ambition. Sometimes I see A levels as the crucible of those aspirations. If the student has developed a melting point above what the flames can sustain, they've earned what comes next. If the flames consume them, then sometimes, what's left is purer and more resilient. Disappointment is a natural, just consequence of failing to succeed, but it is also the catalyst for resurrection.
Some people have hoped that universities could be the great vehicle of social mobility, and recent expansions of universities and their admissions have attempted to do just that. But as admissions have expanded to include previously marginalised classes and tax brackets, so too have familiar patterns of admission been replicated. There are more students than ever before at university, but children of affluence, private education and relative privilege still occupy the campuses proportionately more than the children of lesser Gods.
Some have said that the answer, then, is to manipulate the admission criteria to create new class profiles, more egalitarian demographics. This simply moves the injustice elsewhere - from lack of opportunity for some from birth, to lack of opportunity for some at the point of university admission.
A final word about potential. Whenever I hear anyone talk about potential, I am reminded that everyone has potential. That anyone, given the right context and trigger can achieve just about anything. Granted, I am unlikely to be able to lead the Royal Ballet any time soon, but given enough resources, support, effort or just channelled ambition, most kids can get an A. I believe all of my kids have potential; that's why I don't give up on any of them until the minute they leave school. When they ask what they can get in my subject I tell them all A*, depending on how much they want it, and damn tiered entry with its traitorous toadying to league-tables. Everyone has potential. Trouble is, unless you express that potential as actual from time to time, that potential is moot. That's the difference between children who have the grades, and children who don't. They all have potential. It's just that some of them have proven it.
Universities are not places in which to unpick the stitches of historical injustice. Solving this Rubik's Cube will take more complex solutions that simply painting each side the right colour.
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