pound;30 could make heavenly bread

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Let's face it, life's not fair. Otherwise, how come the Queen lives in Buckingham Palace while I get to lay my weary head in a terrace in Walthamstow?

Education's not fair, either. The quality of your kids' school can be a real lottery. And while some teachers are wonderful, there are also still a few around who are more like something you wouldn't want to tread in on the pavement.

And then there's the little matter of that "top slice" of education which is not available to most children anyway - thanks to the fact that their mums and dads can't afford the fees.

Independent-school students only account for around 7 or 8 per cent of total pupil numbers, yet they still manage to snaffle up around 50 per cent of the available places at Oxford, Cambridge and the other top universities.

In further education, accustomed as we are to languishing on the periphery of educational respectability, it could be argued that we feel this unfairness as keenly as anyone. So, what to make of the recent call from the independent schools for a new A* supergrade to be introduced at A-level? The request comes in the wake of a study which shows that pupils from private schools are already up to five times more likely to achieve top A-level marks than their counterparts in the state-school system.

A spokesman for the Independent Schools Council said the new top grade was needed because the grade boundaries had become too broad. "It compounds the problems for universities at admission because you can't tell who are the top performers," he said.

If you were feeling charitable you could interpret his words simply as a call for equality, for transparency, for fairness - let's see which students are getting the highest marks, and then they can be rewarded accordingly.

On the other hand, you might prefer to view it as yet more whining, carping and complaining on behalf of a privileged elite who resent any attempts to dilute their enormous privilege by even the tiniest degree. If you pay through the nose for your children's education, then surely you want something for your money. True, you still get smaller classes and a socially selected peer group, but it's not easy to watch others who haven't paid a penny elbowing their way into university places which you once saw as yours by right.

"Unjust," they howl, when the Government puts even the mildest of pressure on the universities to open their doors to more working-class applicants.

"Unfair," they chorus, when the "ivy league" Bristol university dares to try to do something similar itself.

In 25 years of teaching in FE, I have seen only the tiniest handful of my students progress to Oxford or Cambridge, although many more have been good enough. And a good proportion of such students come from the most deprived inner-city areas. That, I would suggest, is unfair.

And while we're on the subject of unfairness, surely it must be good news that the educational maintenance allowances are to be extended to all 16 to 19-year-olds, although this year it is only the younger ones who will be pocketing the cash. Predictably, the usual suspects have lined up to complain that this is a waste of money and tantamount to bribing our youngsters to stay in education. But then aren't they the very voices which oppose any attempt to widen participation - not least in the little matter of admissions to elite universities?

A more legitimate complaint would surely highlight those who won't be getting the allowances, rather than those who will. I have in mind all the adult students who are battling against the odds to make up for the missed chances of their youth.

Consider, for instance, the plight of Ella, one of my current access students.

Ella grew up in a tough home environment with little encouragement to study. Although she was bright and interested in the world around her, she left school with few qualifications and little idea about what she wanted to do. For years, she drifted from one dead-end job to another.

Now in her late 20s and a single parent with two young children, she has at last found a sense of direction and purpose. She has flourished on her access course and managed to secure the place she wanted at university.

On the downside, her year back in the classroom has been a financial disaster. With no dedicated funding of any kind available for her, she has just about scraped by on benefits.

Last week, she rang me. There was an emergency in the house. She had no money to rectify it. So, for a couple of weeks she was going to have to duck out of college and take a job.

"I'm hanging on in there, though," she assured me brightly.

Across the country there are thousands of Ellas to whom an extra pound;30 per week would be an absolute godsend. And if the fact that not a single one of them will be getting it isn't unfair, then I don't know what is.

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