'Universities should pay for pupils to go private'

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Independent schools' leader reacts to social mobility report

Universities should divert money that they spend on bursaries and fee waivers to pay for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend independent school sixth forms, the head of a leading group of private schools has said.

Top institutions should also plough resources into helping independent schools offer advice on the university applications process to state school pupils and teachers, she claimed.

Louise Robinson (pictured below), president of the Girls' Schools Association, spoke after the government's social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn, said universities needed to do more to improve poorer pupils' chances of attending higher education.

A report released by the former Labour cabinet minister last week said that universities' policy of offering millions of pounds in bursaries and fee waivers to students from deprived backgrounds is "not particularly effective at widening participation".

Mr Milburn called for more to be done at an earlier age, saying there was a "good case" for universities to provide financial support to promising disadvantaged pupils so that they could gain the grades required to apply.

He suggested that all top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, should run "foundation years" to allow pupils from poor backgrounds who fail to make the grade to catch up and prove themselves before going on to a degree course.

Talking to TES after the report was released, Mr Milburn also said that private schools should work for the tax breaks they gain through charitable status by sharing their expertise on university admissions with state school pupils and teachers.

But Mrs Robinson, headteacher of Merchant Taylors' Girls' School in Crosby, Merseyside, said that universities would be better off part-funding places at independent schools for poorer pupils. They could also provide cash to help such schools support state pupils in their university applications, she said.

"It is a nonsense to think that independent schools are so wealthy they can afford to sponsor bursaries for bright students from poor backgrounds," Mrs Robinson said. "But you could have a situation where you have a university who says, 'Here's a bit of funding', and then the school could match-fund that.

"Universities weren't originally created for social mobility. There's no point in universities putting energy into that when independent schools already have the expertise."

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of umbrella body the Independent Schools Council, backed the idea. "Independent schools aren't supported by the state in any way, they don't make profits, just small surpluses, so this would be a perfectly good idea to allow them to play a role," he said.

The suggestion comes after social mobility charity the Sutton Trust launched a drive urging the government to finance its Open Access scheme to fund private school places for 30,000 pupils. Eighty independent schools have already pledged to take on bursary students, but only if education secretary Michael Gove can commit the #163;180 million needed to get the scheme up and running.

Mrs Robinson also said she disagreed with Mr Milburn's recommendation that urging admissions tutors to make lower offers to disadvantaged students would improve access.

Her comments echoed those of Chris Ray, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and high master of Manchester Grammar School, who has been outspoken against advocates of "social engineering" in admissions, such as Mr Milburn and Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access.

However, William Richardson, the HMC's general secretary, said that there was, as yet, little evidence that private school pupils are being discriminated against by admissions tutors.

See pages 52-53.

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