Access tsar condemns 'snobbery' of elite focus

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
Schools should not be pressured into losing sight of pupils' interests

Schools should ignore the "dreadful snobbery" that puts pressure on them to send as many pupils as possible to elite universities, according to the government's university access tsar.

Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), said that the government's decision to publish information about what pupils do after leaving school risks "undue pressure" being put on students to study unsuitable courses.

Instead of simply focusing on getting more pupils into top universities including Oxford and Cambridge, schools should consider what is best for pupils, including vocational courses and apprenticeships, Professor Ebdon told TES.

His comments follow repeated criticism from education secretary Michael Gove that too few pupils from poor backgrounds win places at elite universities, particularly Oxbridge. The Department for Education published the "destination data" of pupils for the first time this year to highlight which schools are successful in sending their pupils on to higher education.

Mr Gove has praised the success of schools such as Mossbourne Community Academy in London that send large numbers of pupils to Oxbridge. He has said that there is a danger of other schools accepting that children are going to do badly, making them "the victim of the bigotry of low expectations".

But Professor Ebdon, who took charge at Offa in September, said it was important for schools to be judged on whether they were encouraging students to take "the most appropriate route to realise their full potential". He expressed dismay that society "really undervalues apprenticeships" and engineering-related courses. "One of our problems is there's such a dreadful snobbery about whether people go to university or which university they go to," he said. "I would hate to see that work through into undue pressure on schools."

Professor Ebdon said that students should be "choosing the subjects in which they excel and enjoy" rather than feeling pressured by their school, the state of the economy or their parents' ambitions. He said he had been struck by how parental pressure influences black and minority ethnic students to apply for medicine and law courses when attempting to win places at Oxford and Cambridge, despite those courses being some of the most over-subscribed. "This is one of the reasons that some groups are underrepresented at some universities," he said.

"We should be treating people as individuals. This perceived feeling in our society that to be a doctor or lawyer is a high-status profession that black people aspire to for their children . there's nothing wrong with it, but the most important thing is that students should be encouraged to fulfil their full potential in whatever subject that is," he added.

The appointment of the former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire to Offa was steeped in controversy, with a number of high- ranking MPs opposing the move. Professor Ebdon has criticised the government's higher education policies and threatened to use the "nuclear option" of financial penalties against universities that fail to widen their intake.

`Nothing to be fearful of'

The 250 leading independent schools, which dominate successful applications to elite universities, have criticised some institutions for using "contextual data" and making lower offers to students from low- performing schools, a policy that Professor Ebdon supports.

But he told TES that private schools have "nothing to be particularly fearful about" and said if their students attained good grades, they would get in. "Universities can now let in as many students as they want with two As and a B, so hopefully that particular argument, which always was rather spurious, will be defused," he said.

He added that encouraging universities to look at the school backgrounds of applicants had "levelled the playing field" to an extent. "It's terribly important that we don't ignore the potential for excellence for pupils who may have had disadvantage in their school," he said.

Lee Elliot Major, director of development and policy at social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said publishing data on whether pupils went on to leading universities forced schools to look more closely at where their pupils were ending up.

"Research we have done shows very similar schools with very similar A- level results with dramatically different numbers going on to elite universities," he said. "It encourages schools to compare themselves to other schools with similar sets of exam results who have got far more pupils into elite universities and look at what they are doing right."

A DfE spokeswoman said: "We aim to publish a wider range of destinations - including employment - from next year. We have opened up access to destination data so people can see how different schools and colleges, and local authorities, perform. It gives parents greater information on which to base decisions."

CV: Les Ebdon

1947: Born in Edmonton, North London. Later attended Hemel Hempstead Grammar School, Hertfordshire, and Imperial College London.

1968: Gained a BSc in chemistry.

1971: Gained a PhD in chemistry.

1971-73: Lecturer, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

1973-80: Lecturer, Sheffield City Polytechnic.

1981: Lecturer in analytical chemistry at what is now Plymouth University, rising to deputy vice-chancellor.

2003: Became vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Luton (later the University of Bedfordshire).

2012: Appointed director of the Office for Fair Access.

Original headline: Access tsar condemns `dreadful snobbery' of elite university focus

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