‘Too often those on the vocational route are made to feel like a well-qualified butler in Downton Abbey’

19th August 2016 at 17:20
A level results
Children from ethnic minorities and the white working classes are often ill-informed about what education choices they should make

It’s a pleasure to see so many young people celebrating A-level success this week - and it’s a relief to see that the heyday of star-jump pictures may be over. But results day coincided with the publication of a landmark report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on widespread inequalities in British society, especially for young black people.

Among its conclusions were:

  • Life chances for young minority ethnic people have got worse over the past five years and are “the most challenging for generations”. These young people are more likely to live in poverty than white people, and more likely to live in poor housing;
  • White working-class boys have the worst GCSE results overall while Chinese and Indian educational achievement is improving. Just 6 per cent of black school leavers attend a Russell Group university compared with 11 per cent of white school leavers;
  • Unemployment rates among ethnic minorities (12.9 per cent) are twice as high as those for white people. Black workers with degrees earn 23 per cent less on average than white workers with equivalent qualifications;
  • Ethnic minorities are “hugely underrepresented” in positions of power, such as judges and police chiefs.

Another worry is that the dropout rates at many non-elite universities are very high and disproportionately impact ethnic minority students. Tutors point to students taking the "wrong" A-levels and choosing the "wrong" degrees. This is really code for saying they probably need a foundation year in literacy and numeracy to help them access the degree subjects they have chosen.

Universities 'taking on students unable to cope'

The worry is that because we have a “buyers’ market”, universities may well be taking on students unable to cope with the course.

Students seem to have more advice available to them when buying a mobile phone than they do in choosing a university and selecting the right course. The process needs to be resolved well before A-level study begins.

Should our A-level successes trade their qualifications for the world of apprenticeships? I would say no. If you have worked so hard to get top grades in your A levels, they should be the passport to more academic rigour, not less. Let’s be honest: the vocational route in a country with negative social mobility makes you feel as if you’re a well-qualified butler in our Downtown Abbey class system. And don’t tell me about university drop-outs like Bill Gates or the founder of Facebook. They had to drop out otherwise their intellectual property would have gone to Harvard.

We still have these well-qualified students, particularly from ethnic minorities, choosing a handful of degree subjects, usually medicine, pharmacy, law and accountancy. What about classics, archaeology, veterinary science and theology?  What our students will not know is that most bankers do not have a degree in finance, most politicians do not have a degree in politics, and even accountancy firms love a graduate with a degree in the history of art.

At my charity, Generating Genius, Anthonia Ononogbo, who lives in Tottenham, north London, is, like her peers on our programmes, delighted with her A-level grades: A for biology, C for chemistry and C for geography A. She will be going to Queen Mary, University of London, to study biochemistry.

She says: ‘My family are of African origin and I am first-generation British. I would be the first person in my immediate family to go to university in the UK.’ 

Let’s have more Anthonias.

Dr Tony Sewell is CEO of Generating Genius, which works to widen access for young people from disadvantaged homes to top universities. He is a member of the Youth Justice Board

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