From the Editor - The early university could catch more worms

26th October 2012 at 01:00

"Access fellow": the job title sounds a bit underwhelming but the intentions behind it are lofty. An Oxford college has become the first in the country to appoint an academic to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds prepare for university (see pages 52-53). His job will be to speed round the country like some manic Mary Poppins dispensing sound advice and giving the types of lessons students can expect to encounter at Oxbridge.

This is not a bad idea. And it seems to work, judging by the success of BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College, which pioneered the programme and now dispatches many more students from deprived Hackney to lots of top universities. It's hard to see why other institutions shouldn't follow suit, because the gulf between schools in poor areas and elite universities is wide and shows few signs of narrowing.

As Alan Milburn pointed out in his report on social mobility last week, despite the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on widening access, there aren't many more poor students at elite universities than there are Swiss admirals. Too few of them gain the necessary grades, say universities, which is true and has led Mr Milburn to conclude that universities spend too much on bursaries for the few who cross the threshold when they should be splurging in schools, helping struggling pupils to succeed.

Outreach initiatives, summer schools and the like, which acquaint disadvantaged youngsters with the often alien world of university, clearly help. But while welcome, they are not enough.

Independent schools have suggested that instead of sharing their admissions expertise with the state sector, as recommended by Mr Milburn, universities should pay them to admit disadvantaged pupils (see pages 20-21). That would be a colossal mistake. However well-intentioned, it implicitly reinforces the limiting notion that pupils with ambition should quit state schools. This may do wonders for private schools struggling with dwindling intakes but it would do little to foster the idea that aspiration should be second nature in all schools. The challenge is to raise standards across the board, not cherry-pick the easy wins and leave the vast majority constricted by limited horizons.

This also involves more than a bit of turbo-charging in sixth forms. If pupils have struggled throughout their school careers, it's difficult to see how remedial work post-16 will benefit more than a few. If the problems start much earlier, so must the solutions.

More of the heavy lifting needs to be done by universities. They have the resources but lack imagination. The key to getting more disadvantaged pupils into university is to raise their attainment earlier. More universities should follow Liverpool's example and work with primaries as well as sixth forms. And all should do a UCL or a Nottingham and open at least one academy, if not several.

Universities are too often divorced culturally and mentally from the schools that surround them. They should get involved not because the Office for Fair Access is threatening to get heavy but because involvement is, or should be, an integral part of their educational mission. If they can expend such energy reaching out to overseas students, surely it isn't too much to ask that they minister to those a bit closer to home?

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