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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Laura Spence don blames families
Magdalen College:
Magdalen College: Accused by Gordon Brown
The debate about getting more working-class pupils into the UK's top universities should focus on their families and schools, according to the head of the college at the centre of the Laura Spence affair.


Very able working-class children will come forward in larger numbers only when the level of encouragement provided by family and school improves. Educational deficiency has much more to do with family than with school

Anthony Smith
Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, said it was "appalling" that state schools sent so few children to the dozen or so major research and teaching universities.

In a speech to the Independent Schools Conference in Brighton, Mr Smith said it was regrettable that the "current wave of concern" was fixated on which students a university took in.

"The debate should focus on the senders of able children, rather than the takers," he said.

'Worrying tale'

"My own college bore the brunt, just a year ago, of what is generally now realised to have been a truly biased and ill-informed attack by the chancellor of the exchequer, including the allegation that our failure to give a place to a particular young woman was a 'scandal'.

anthony smith
Anthony Smith: Hitting back
"As it happens she had come 10th in a competition for five places."

The young woman was Laura Spence, from Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, who subsequently won a scholarship to study at Harvard University in the United States.

The chancellor's attack was in May last year.

"In the same month I heard the tale of a teacher at a comprehensive school who had gone round to the home of a parent of one of her pupils to tell the mother that she would never see her daughter again if she successfully applied to a Cambridge college - she would no longer be good enough for her," Mr Smith said.

"Well, I ask you, is that not a great scandal?"

Elitism and excellence

He argued that the debate needed to be about encouraging the most able children to hold the highest ambitions.

Britain had become uncomfortable with the idea that elites could exist.

"We are rather more at ease with the notion of excellence, which has, in recent years, acquired a kind of bureaucratised status in all sorts of contexts, but that is partly because excellence sounds not so much like something to be striven for as something which can be distributed, handed out in egalitarian rations."

This did not happen in the realm of sport, he said.

Mr Smith said that in the overall school population 93% of children attended state schools and seven per cent private ones.

Admissions figures from elite universities showed that 53% of their student came from state schools and 47% from private ones - about the same as the proportions of applications from each sector.

Applications

Ministers complained that the split among schoolchildren getting three A-grades at A-level was 65% state and 35% private - implying that should be reflected in the admissions figures.

It would be, he said, if the applications came in those proportions, but they did not, despite universities' efforts to attract the students.

Magdalen was spending 250,000 a year on recruitment and selection. Among other things, its state school students went out to their old schools to persuade people to apply.

But if the best 120 candidates came from Eton and Winchester, they would get the places.

"On the other hand if we were to discover on that fateful day one December after the same tests, that our entire intake was going to be from inner city comprehensives, we would be similarly confident that we were taking the best of the applicants."

Solutions from other societies proposed by some - such as American SAT tests - were not the answer.

Unfortunately, he said, ministers "are unwilling to criticise the attitudes of those who bring about this lack of educational aspiration".

Family influence

Governments tended to see universities as engines of social change rather than autonomous learned and learning communities.

"Fiddling about with Oxbridge admissions procedures will do little more than, perhaps, get a few middle-class children from state schools to replace a few middle-class children from private schools.

"Very able working-class children will come forward in larger numbers only when the level of encouragement provided by family and school improves," he said.

"Educational deficiency has much more to do with family than with school and begins before the children even reach school."

He said a good start would be to improve their environment, "ensure that their fathers have jobs", reduce the income gap, improve television and cut violence and the supply of drugs.

The Department for Education said access to university should depend on ability not social background.

"We have recognised the crucial role parents play in developing their children's appetite for learning with the introduction of our Learning Journey strategy, which helps parents to help their children learn," a spokesman said.

"We have confidence in heads and teachers to stretch their pupils and encourage them to apply for the university of their choice."

See also:

08 Feb 01 | UK Education
29 Jan 01 | UK Education
30 Jun 00 | UK Education
29 Jun 00 | UK Education
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