From the Editor - It's still a heck of a way from Blackburn to Balliol

21st October 2011 at 01:00

There was a piece in last month's Tatler lamenting the lot of posh people. Things were going brilliantly - David Cameron had the top job, Colin Firth had bagged his Oscar, Kate and Wills had dazzled the planet - then along came Made in Chelsea to ruin it all. But the top drawer should take heart. There is one bastion that is still safe for privilege - our universities. It seems it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a poor pupil to get into a top university - a paltry 2 per cent of their students were on free school meals.

"Don't blame us, squire," bleat the universities, "we can only take what we're given." They have a point. Sure, they could do more outreach and discover Blackburn and send the odd expedition to Knowsley. And they could be less opaque about exactly which exams they rate and which they don't. But relatively few poor pupils make it to university for the simple reason that few make it to A-level and even fewer get the necessary grades.

So if the universities aren't at fault, what is? Well, apparently our politicians have decided that it must be you lot. Obsessed with meeting Ofsted targets, schools have neglected to tell pupils that there is an academic life beyond a GCSE grade C. Even if they do, they appear to have equipped pupils with the wrong type of A-levels. What else can explain why schools with similar intakes and grades send widely divergent numbers of pupils to top universities (pages 28-32)?

At which point schools may retort that, as they are judged almost exclusively on core GCSEs, it's a bit rich to berate them for not shining in the educational equivalent of an unannounced swimwear competition. Ministers, however, have a plan. Schools will soon be assessed on how many of their pupils make it into top universities. Your higher education credentials will be visible for all to see.

Is that fair? Some schools could do more to instil an expectation of university in those without any family history of it. And it is also true, if sad, that schools tend to respond well to an official target. But it isn't at all clear whether destination data will help catapult bright, poor kids from council high-rises to ivory towers. Nor is it obvious that schools are largely responsible for them not arriving in the first place.

If geography plays a part in university progression - and it does - why should schools in Redcar be penalised and those in Reading praised? If culture inclines students to stay put and stay local even if they have the grades to go higher and farther, why should schools be taken to task? If a child's progress benefits enormously from the graduate education of his or her parents, how are schools in any way responsible? And if academic achievement is heavily influenced by family prosperity, how can schools be held to account for it?

It is shameful that so few disadvantaged pupils make it to university. It is tragic because it isn't inevitable. Good and inspired teaching can make a huge difference. But it isn't the only factor propelling children forward or holding them back. And to rate schools as if it were is not only dishonest but also self-defeating. Ultimately, that will only bolster the university chances of students made in Chelsea at the expense of those made in Dagenham.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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