Expectations ‘too low’ on widening university access

24th June 2016 at 00:00
Conference delegates assert ‘astonishing’ claim that schools are damaging poorer teenagers’ prospects

University staff have criticised schools for not doing enough to get poor teenagers into higher education, claiming that some teachers had low expectations of pupils and even prevented visits from widening access teams.

An event on fair access heard how some teachers were dismissive about certain pupils’ chances of getting into higher education – and even “ashamed” by their behaviour .

Schools were also damaging young people’s prospects by offering just four Highers instead of the more typical five or six, one delegate told the event, titled The Journey to Fairness – Widening Access to University Education.

But Gerry Lyons, the only headteacher at the event, said that he was “astonished” by some of what he heard, and later made a staunch defence of schools. He called on universities to up their game on access for young people from deprived backgrounds (see box, below).

The Holyrood Events conference, held in Edinburgh, heard that some schools were harder for universities’ widening access staff to visit than others, and questions were raised about some teachers’ commitment to helping all pupils. One university delegate raised concerns about guidance teachers who, despite pupils’ welfare being central to their job, played down the chances of certain young people getting into higher education.

“The attitude of guidance staff can be really detrimental,” she said, recalling one who was unhappy when a group of less academic pupils was sent to meet a university representative.

“Her attitude was, ‘I know for a fact that these pupils are in learning support and it will be very unlikely that they will ever be capable of getting a degree…I’m not saying all guidance teachers are like that – there are some absolutely incredible ones out there – but quite often, guidance staff can be difficult to work with,” said the delegate.

Another recalled meeting teachers who seemed uncomfortable working with visitors from universities because certain pupils’ were liable to misbehave or use bad language. “It was almost like the teachers themselves were ashamed of the potential behaviour of their pupils. That worried me,” he said.

Russell Gunson, Scotland director at the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank, warned delegates at the conference of the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies on access: “If you don’t think this is possible, then it won’t be possible.” He added that Scotland had made “quite substantial” progress in widening access over recent years.

There was repeated talk at the event of getting things right on university access for today’s generation of two-year-olds who will potentially be attending in 16 years’ time.

Joanne Martin, a second-year University of Aberdeen medical student, feared that there was not enough urgency on widening access, which left a generation of young people in danger of missing out. Ms Martin, the first person in her extended family to go to university, said that today’s students only had one shot at their Highers and needed more help. “Something has to be done for them [rather than] waiting until these two-year-olds are 18,” she said.

There were also complaints that Scotland was too “cluttered” with widening access programmes, and that universities were overly “competitive” and intent on meeting their own targets rather than serving the greater good.

Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, said: “Scotland’s higher education institutions are committed to ensuring that a higher education is something that all pupils and their parents can consider.

“Universities have been discussing their response to the commission within Universities Scotland. If schools are feeling overwhelmed by too many university access initiatives, this should go some way to helping with that.”


Beyond the rhetoric

Gerry Lyons, the headteacher of St Andrew’s Secondary, in Glasgow’s East End, was the only representative from a school at the event.

He found it both “astonishing” and “disappointing” to see no other teachers among the dozens of delegates. He also suggested that universities needed to improve their approach to widening access. “To what extent does some of that commitment from higher education institutions go beyond rhetoric?” he asked.

There had been lots of work done on widening access over the years, he added, but this had not had “the impact you would want”. He also told TESS that summer access programmes for school-leavers should help them get into any university, not just the institution running it.

Mr Lyons, a member of Dame Ruth Silver’s Commission on Widening Access, did not dismiss all criticism of schools.

On the issue of university staff finding it difficult to get into some schools, he told delegates at the event: “I am astonished about that, because I can’t quite understand why any school wouldn’t want to engage with higher education.”

He said that it was unacceptable for any school not to allow a young person to sit five Highers if they wished to, and that they “should not be allowed to continue on that basis”.

But he also that said he was unaware of a single school where this was a policy. He later told TESS that a more likely scenario was that some schools were unable to offer certain combinations of five subjects at Higher.

He added that the vast majority of guidance teachers were highly supportive of pupils.

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