Give primary pupils higher aspirations

30th May 2008 at 01:00
The worst poverty is the poverty of aspiration, Ernest Bevin, a Labour minister nearly 70 years ago, is reported to have said
The worst poverty is the poverty of aspiration, Ernest Bevin, a Labour minister nearly 70 years ago, is reported to have said.

Recent figures from the British Market Research Bureau show how far we still have to go in persuading young people from the poorest backgrounds to aspire to university. The gap between those from the top social group aiming for higher education and those in the bottom one has barely changed in the past decade, and the proportion of the latter reaching university has edged up only minimally.

To its credit, the Government has committed itself to tackling the gap. Gordon Brown, who famously publicised the case of Laura Spence, the comprehensive pupil turned down by Oxford, got most of the facts wrong but the sentiment right. Research by the admirable Sutton Trust shows the predominance of a handful of privileged schools in the race for entry to elite universities.

Part of the problem is the very variable advice that sixth formers receive from their schools. Another Sutton Trust report last month found that four in ten teenagers say they receive little or no information about getting to university. Yet this information is vital. Leading universities said recently that students who take too many "soft" A-levels (media or business studies for example) may be ruling themselves out long before they fill in their Ucas form.

So the proposal, from a group set up by the Prime Minister and led by Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, for a senior teacher in every school to advise on university entrance is welcome (see page 4). So is the pound;21 million promised for mentors to encourage pupils to consider university.

The group's proposal that universities should know the number of applicants from each school who reach higher education also makes sense, if it helps admissions tutors to take fairer decisions. The plan to rank schools according to their university success rate doesn't. A league table will tempt schools to push pupils into university when they might be better off elsewhere.

The most compelling argument in the report is to improve primary pupils' motivation. Children need to be reasonably literate and numerate when they arrive at secondary school if they are to have a chance of reaching university. By the time they reach GCSE, it is too late.

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