“If you’re a white working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university,” said our new prime minister, Theresa May, on taking office in July.
This “burning injustice”, as she put it, will no doubt come to the fore with the publication of A-level results this week.
We’ve already been gearing up. Last month, a survey by Ucas revealed that children who know by the age of 10 that they want to study for a degree (is that children, or their parents?) are “twice as likely” to get into a selective university. And just this week, Teach First called on universities to engage with primary pupils, because those from high-income backgrounds are more likely to start planning university applications earlier than their low-income peers .
All this misses the point, however. Firstly, it’s hard to know what you want to study when you don’t know what you could be because you haven’t got a clue those occupations even exist. And secondly, there’s the breathtakingly arrogant assumption that degree-requiring middle-class occupations are somehow always better than decent high-paying trades for which you do not need a degree. (What’s funny, though, is that when a posh person goes into one of those trades, it suddenly becomes a craft – the chippy becomes an artisan.)
Why go to university if you can earn good money from the get-go instead of being saddled with debt?
And why go to university if you can earn good money from the get-go instead of being saddled with debt? Yes, I know a student loan is not really a conventional debt, but that’s the fault of universities for not selling it properly. They allowed what is, in effect, a graduate tax to be presented badly and then for the narrative to spiral out of control. Middle-class kids aren’t put off because the idea of debt is no big deal. But poor children know exactly what debt means: bloody hardship.
We won’t help them – or middle-class children, for that matter – if we keep pushing the idea that university is the only route to success. We shouldn’t be wasting millions on university access programmes that are, in reality, just a massive recruitment drive for higher education. If we really want a good return for our money, we should spend it in schools, especially in early years, where it could make a huge difference.
In fact, it’s not poor kids who need educating about the benefits of higher education – it’s the rest of us who need to be taught about their lives, along with the many viable alternatives to university.
How many policymakers and academics who compile the endless widening participation reports come from a similar background? Most of them have never been near an FE college, let alone a council estate.
And if more poor white working-class girls go to university than boys, it may well be because, like girls from all walks of life, they tend to work harder at school.
But it may also be because girls have fewer alternatives. For them, without a degree, it’s only low-paid menial work that’s traditionally available – there are still few female plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, and so on.
The system has failed poor white working-class boys and it will continue to fail them – and working-class girls – if we keep addressing the issue in the same way.
We won’t ever reach them educationally if we’re deaf to them culturally. And if we keep looking at their lives and their futures through a middle-class lens, then we are always going to find them wanting. That’s the real burning injustice.