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Policy mess stops inner-city pupils' progression

DESPITE all our very best efforts, FE colleges and schools are not making much headway in widening participation in higher education. While numbers of undergraduates have increased by 2.6 per cent over the past five years, the class composition of the HE student body has remained practically unchanged. Only 13 per cent of all HE students are drawn from low-income families.

New Labour's 1998 reforms have had little impact on the socio-economic mix of the student intake. Why not?

First, because of hasty and inappropriate changes to the qualification regime. The most glaring example of this is in A-level maths, a popular subject at this college. Before the introduction of Curriculum 2000 about 60 students passed A-level maths every year; since the introduction of the AS hurdle, this number has halved. Far from broadening the curriculum experience, young people have got the message that taking maths A-level is too risky. Thirty fewer - mainly ethnic minority - young people will study at university as a consequence.

The Association for Colleges has been expressing concern to ministers about the qualifications regime for the past two years. Their arguments have been dismissed by ministers, civil servants and policy advisers as FE colleges whingeing. It takes mistakes in the grades of 168 mainly public school children to open discussion of previously dismissed sensible solutions (such as bringing back BTEC or the baccalaureate).

A second reason why the proportion of applicants to HE from the inner city has not increased is the privatisation of careers services; now Connexions. Advice and guidance to potential university entrants is no longer a mainstream priority and the caseload of Connexions advisers is almost exclusively focused on students below Level 2. In more affluent areas this might not have much impact because there are informed parents and friends with experience of HE. This is not so in areas such as Tower Hamlets.

A third explanation is that the prospect of future debt has now become a significant deterrent. As Professor Claire Callender from South Bank University has shown, students from poorer homes are likely to be debt averse.

Many students from Tower Hamlets College who go to university will leave with a debt that is likely to be as large, or larger, than the annual income of their family. A debt of this size is a daunting prospect, particularly for those from black and ethnic minority communities who stand statistically less chance of getting a well paid job. Meanwhile, resources for widening participation pour into universities and some seem to be struggling to know how to spend them.

This observation is from an experienced careers teacher at Tower Hamlets College: "For 18-year-old applicants, so-called widening participation has been anything but. One local university refuses to take anyone with an AVCE qualification in business studies on to their business studies degree.

"Some recruit their target number of students from disadvantaged areas and so feel under no pressure to change. Others, notably Oxbridge colleges, lay on extensive dinners for FE staff. I could have attended a different conference on widening participation every week of the year."

This is not to shift the blame on to universities. While retention and achievement improves every year in our college, it is not at a fast enough rate to close the gap. All of us serving economically deprived communities need to do better. The question is: how?

We are all exhausted by targets, suffering from acute initiative fatigue, overwhelmed by bureaucracy and annoyed by the rhetoric of widening participation. So what is to be done to improve our performance so that more young people progress into HE?

Here are three suggestions. First, continue the Educational Maintenance Allowance our students receive now into HE. Dr Robert Stevens has a simple idea for how the Treasury can secure the necessary funds to support means-tested maintenance grants. He suggests that parents pay university fees at the same level they paid for their children's schooling. So a young person from a comprehensive will pay nothing and a young person from Eton will pay pound;15,000.

This solution will not only provide the money for grants but may also drive some middle-class children back into state schools. The second idea comes from Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman and a TES columnist. He has suggested for a number of years that a proportion of places at Russell Group universities be allocated to schools and colleges serving deprived areas.

As with Robert Stevens's strategy, this would encourage some middle-class children back into the state system. Schools and colleges serving deprived areas need a comprehensive intake. The sharp elbow of the middle class makes a difference in stretching students and their teachers.

Finally, we must pay teachers in FE colleges properly. It is a national scandal that FE teachers are paid pound;3,000 to pound;6,000 less than their colleagues in school sixth forms for doing the same job. FE colleges cannot retain and motivate high-calibre teachers without a significant injection of funding for pay.

No one questions this Government's commitment. But its widening participation policy has been thoroughly undermined by the unintended consequences of other policies. What is needed is a widening of participation in policy making. It is time government started trusting, listening and paying staff in FE colleges properly so that they can contribute at their full potential to widening participation in higher education.

Annette Zera is principal of Tower Hamlets College

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