Access to a better life begins in school

20th November 2015 at 00:00

Schools that fail to give good advice and guidance to disadvantaged pupils about university are “just another thing for young people to deal with”, Dame Ruth Silver told TESS at a recent conference

She is chair of the Scottish government’s widening access commission and is charged with ensuring that any child born now will have an equal chance of attending university when they leave school, irrespective of their background.

Widening access to university is too focused on the “deficit” in the individual – low aspirations or attainment, for instance – and not enough time has been spent looking at what institutions such as schools can to do differently, Dame Ruth believes.

The widening access commission’s interim report ( was published last week, the day after Dame Ruth’s conversation with TESS. It says: “We need to consider what more the education system can do to remove barriers to access.” (See page 10.)

The lack of quality advice and guidance coming out of schools for disadvantaged families and their parents is “concerning”, Dame Ruth says.

Applying to university is a complex process that becomes easier to navigate if you have parents or relatives who have been through the higher education system. But widening access applicants do not always have that. “How can schools accommodate the gap in that background?” she asks.

Examples of good practice exist but Scotland needs national initiatives, Dame Ruth insists. One of the expert groups the commission is now setting up will be charged with exploring the issue and developing solutions, she says.

The widening access commission is not alone in lamenting the quality of advice on offer to Scottish school pupils. This week we also report on research showing that subject choice is a class issue (see pages 6-7).

Scotland recently celebrated 50 years of comprehensive schooling (read the TESS article on this milestone at However, the researchers argue that although students are no longer sent off to different schools to pursue vocational or academic pathways, this still happens within the walls of the same building.

Subject choice at 13 sets pupils on a path from which they are unlikely to waver, the researchers find. And whether pupils make the choices likely to lead to university and the top jobs depends on their parents’ jobs and education: in essence, their background.

As well as calling for better advice around the implications of choosing certain subjects, the researchers float the idea that Scotland should compel students to take academic subjects for longer.

At the end of the day, teachers who have themselves been through the university system will be well aware of the subjects with the greatest currency. Therefore it seems unlikely that only the offspring of the advantaged will be privy to this advice.

But subject choice is not just about getting good advice. It’s also about good grades – you don’t get to study Higher maths if you haven’t reached the previous level. Attainment, therefore, remains paramount and the focus on closing the attainment gap is almost undoubtedly the right one.

Ensuring that school caters for all pupils, not just the academic, is vital too. But breadth of study is also important and no one should feel that choices they make when they have barely entered their teens dictate the rest of their lives.

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