Editorial - The odds are stacked against poor, bright kids. But poverty of ambition lurks where it shouldn't

8th July 2011 at 01:00

Many teachers may be tempted to greet today's report into university progression with a shrug (pages 10-11). Independents and grammars dominate. Quelle surprise. It isn't a revelation that selective institutions whose pupils are drawn overwhelmingly from comfortable backgrounds do well. It is alarming that some schools tend to favour either Oxford or Cambridge year after year - which suggests that some elite school and university relationships are far too cosy and their access policies are not as fair as they could be. But it would be news if these schools did not hog the top positions in any university entrance league table.

Neither is it astonishing that affluent areas tend to send far more kids to university than disadvantaged ones. It is odd that progression to higher education is significantly below average in Bristol, Torbay and East Sussex. But not in the least surprising that Knowsley, Hackney, Rochdale and other deprived authorities perform poorly.

However, there are plenty of wrinkles lurking beneath the obvious. Something is amiss when two schools with identical exam results have a progression rate to higher education that varies by 10 percentage points. There is something terribly wrong when a comprehensive school with the same scores as a local independent sends 17 per cent of its pupils to top universities compared with the 66 per cent sent by its neighbour. And there is a monumental problem when four elite schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than the bottom 2,000 schools combined.

What can be done? Better guidance for pupils about subject choice and higher education options would help, as would university transparency about which subjects they rate and which they do not. Progression league tables will not be welcomed by many teachers. However, it's difficult to escape the depressing conclusion that unless an activity is measured, it won't happen.

But the most intractable problem is a limitation of mind. It isn't surprising that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations. Most of their families understandably lack awareness of what is possible. But too many teachers reinforce rather than challenge these attitudes. "What do you expect from children like these" is a sentiment too often heard. "Academic subjects won't interest these kids" is an assumption too frequently made.

There is nothing progressive or comprehensive about denying poor, bright children the chance to maximise their potential. It is not a betrayal of the rest of the class to stretch them. The odds are stacked against schools in deprived areas. But why do British pupils fail to succeed against the odds when, according to the OECD, their international disadvantaged peers overcome them? Could it be that we reserve belief and confidence for the children of the well-heeled and think they are luxuries wasted on the poor?

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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