The dark side of the whiteboard - Toffs aplenty, oiks in short supply

7th May 2010 at 01:00

I have just come back from a weekend in St Andrews. My eldest son somehow managed to dodge the genetic imperative that makes the rest of us prefer salad cream to mayonnaise and bluffed his way into a posh university. The fact that I stabbed him with a fork every time he inserted an unwanted glottal stop might also have helped.

Given that he came from a state school, his entrance into Scotland's oldest university goes against the flow of the tide. Recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that more than half of our leading universities are still missing their state sector recruitment targets, but a Russell Group spokesperson counters that schools are to blame for low aspiration, lack of guidance and under-performance.

However, if my experience in St Andrews is anything to go by, it is a social rather than an academic barrier that disadvantages the state sector. We could improve our students' chances with a few choice lessons on how to "pop one's collar" and where to mail-order a Jack Wills gilet. St Andrews is a fabulous university, but the great unwashed are not in abundance. Significantly, the town is home to the notorious all-male Kate Kennedy Club, a society dedicated to quaffing Pimms, raising money for charity and returning to the levels of social mobility that existed in 1413, the year the university was founded. Last year, the female principal withdrew the university's recognition of the club due to its embarrassing constitution where membership is rumoured to depend upon daddy's annual income and whether you have ever bagged a brace at Balmoral.

The previous principal also boycotted the club, but on his retirement stated controversially that the reason St Andrews was so successful was because it had refused to discriminate in favour of poorer students. Thankfully a view not shared by the present incumbent.

St Andrews has not been alone in shunning pupils from the working classes. Only 2.7 per cent of Oxford new entrants are from disadvantaged areas and their overall entry from state schools was only 53.9 per cent last year. So how can we help ordinary kids break through? Some schools are catching on that it is social confidence and not attainment that stands in a pupil's way. At my son's school, the most able KS4 kids studied leadership and management. They swapped half a GCSE in ICT for an arcane curriculum that owed more to Alan Bennett's The History Boys than to anything Ed Balls might cook up. For two years they focused on the holy trinity of rhetoric, logic and Latin before finishing with a residential week in Oxford.

But some inequalities are harder to redress. Pupils from poorer backgrounds competing for places to study medicine really struggle to make it through the selection process. Now that most medicine applicants have an identikit profile of at least three A grades, the decider is the personal statement. And the expensive gap-year packages, where middle class teenagers on a jolly on the Costa del Catastrophe get to patronise poor people, carry more weight than a Saturday job in Primark. Nor is there much we can do about it: teachers may be acting in loco parentis, but there are some things the budget won't stretch to. All we can do to bridge that social divide is to bring in broadsheets, take them to the theatre (often free for 16-25s) and encourage political debate. If all else fails, prod them sharply with a fork.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary English teacher in the North of England.

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