Long-term project to iron out inequalities

11th January 2013 at 00:00

Tension is rising on the TESS forums this week, as applicants for next year's teacher training places await the outcome of their December interviews. Others are anxiously preparing for January interviews. Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, the University of the West of Scotland ... they're all in there.

How much effort goes into the allocation of places is something these applicants will probably never know. As the universities do their best to pick the most promising candidates for the courses they have chosen - education, law, engineering, whatever - they have other considerations in mind, too.

For the first time, all Scottish universities are answerable to their political masters on the outcome of agreements struck last year in a quid pro quo linking funding to new government priorities for admissions, retention and performance. High on the list this year is widening access to students from the poorest backgrounds (News Focus, pages 12-15).

A great deal has been done by programmes like Reach Scotland, which targets S4-6 pupils in deprived areas, inviting them in to the universities to attend courses, helping them with applications and practising interview skills. The University of Glasgow boosted its intake of medical students from the more deprived areas from 9.7 per cent in 2011 to 22.3 per cent last year.

Not all the figures are as impressive. When the University of Edinburgh pledges to increase its entrants from the most deprived areas by 50 per cent by 2016, it means an additional 50 students across all its faculties; when St Andrews refers to a 45 per cent increase by 2014, it means 19.

These, however, are just the first targets. Inequalities cannot be eradicated overnight, which is why the Scottish government is tackling the issue at the early years stage, too - before the children are educationally disadvantaged.

Schools and teachers are vital for giving first-generation applicants to university the confidence to put themselves forward. Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, went to a "bog-standard comprehensive" but it was a school that believed everybody could achieve, he says (page 30). As a result, "lots of people ... went to university and built better lives for themselves".

Even at primary, teachers are inspiring pupils to pursue their chosen careers. On Islay and Jura, 10-year-olds are being enthused by a learning project from Massachusetts that allows them to work independently on whatever appeals to them - from catching lobster to building remote-control cars (page 18).

What the work in these island schools highlights is not just the value of good teachers and good schools, but the value small rural communities can add with their own special assets on which children can draw (see news report, page 5). With the right support and the right guidance, these youngsters will find the future of their choice on home or distant shores.

Gillian, Macdonald, Editor, gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk.

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