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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
'We need a dramatic solution'
The National Union of Students has warned the government to improve the education system so more people stay on after the age of 16.

If this does not happen, it argues, plans to expand higher education are unfeasible.

Professor Steven Schwartz, who led a government inquiry into university admissions, writes for the BBC News website about what he thinks needs to be done.

Could assisted places for poorer students at independent schools be a solution?

Steven Schwartz
Prof Schwartz advised the government on admissions
After a decade or more of trying to widen participation in higher education, we seem to be no further along than when we started.

Over the past few months, reports produced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Graduate Prospects paint a depressing picture.

The percentage of higher education students who come from poor backgrounds is decreasing rather than increasing.

Students who come from managerial or professional families are now six times more likely to participate in higher education than those from disadvantaged families.

The Higher Education Policy Institute has recently concluded that, unless something dramatic is done, the government will not reach its target of 50% of young people taking part in some form of higher education by 2010.

As if all this were not bad enough, researchers from the London School of Economics have found that British children from disadvantaged backgrounds have less chance of moving up the social ladder today than they did 20 years ago.

Missing out

These disappointing findings should strike alarm bells throughout government.

Despite the best efforts of universities and colleges, and despite generous funding from the Higher Education Funding Councils, students from working-class backgrounds are still missing out on the benefits that derive from higher education: well paying jobs and access to influential social networks.

We will never reach our goals as a just society until all young people who are capable of higher education, rich or poor, white or black, are able to access higher education.

But private benefits are not the only reason for wanting to widen participation.

If more people get the chance to participate in higher education, we all benefit.

The presence in society of educated persons is a force for social improvement.

Lawyers advance the cause of justice while doctors promote health.

Teachers prepare the next generation and scientists make discoveries that will reverberate around the world.

Healthier lifestyles

Society also benefits because graduates are less likely to be unemployed or to make demands on the benefit system than non-graduates.

Graduates pay more taxes. They lead healthier lifestyles (fewer smoke, for example), which reduces health expenditures. Graduates are also less likely to commit crimes and are more likely to do volunteer work.

So, there are good reasons for widening participation in higher education: to give everyone a fair chance to gain the private benefits and to give society the social benefits of an educated population.

Every university and college in the country accepts these goals and every one has been trying to increase participation.

Yet, as we have seen, the outcome has been disappointing.

Some commentators blame the schools for not preparing students for higher education, but the objective evidence is just the opposite.

According to OECD research, UK students do better than most other OECD countries in reading, maths and science.

Indeed, the UK usually scores in the top third of countries in academic performance and, in some comparisons, higher than that.

There is little doubt that we teach the basics at least as well as schools in other countries.

However, there are two areas in which we fall behind other nations.

First, in the UK, children from wealthier backgrounds get a better education than those from the working class.

Poor schools

The correlation between wealth and education in the UK is so strong we can predict students' GCSE results more accurately by knowing their family income than by knowing their scores on earlier examinations.

Why? Because wealthy families can move to neighbourhoods with the best schools (homes near high-performing schools can cost up to 25,000 more than homes near poor schools).

Wealthy parents can also afford to pay for after-school tutoring or opt out entirely and send their children to private schools. Poor families are stuck with whatever school is nearby.

A second serious problem for UK education is that working-class children, especially boys, are more likely to drop out of school than working-class children in other countries.

Our post-16 rate is among the lowest in the OECD. As a consequence, many young people are unskilled.

Not surprisingly their job prospects are grim, and they know it.

One of the problems here is of expectations: An OECD study found that, compared with Australian, American or even Polish pupils, UK boys have a low expectation of obtaining a skilled white-collar job.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with pupils who have low expectations of success dropping out of school.

Outside the box

For some reason, we have not been able to offer the kind of education that would attract these students. The consequences are tragic.

Years of government-funded programmes have failed to eliminate the problems of unequal provision and high drop-out rates.

It is time to think outside the box. For example, there is growing evidence that working-class boys may benefit from single-sex education. They should be given this chance.

Similarly, there is a strong case to be made for assisted places: sending students to private schools.

But by far the most important thing we can do is to break away from the centralised planning that has delivered so little. Instead, we can harness the power of the market.

Middle-class parents already have consumer power. Working-class parents need the same power.

If funding followed parental choice, working-class parents would be free to choose any school they wished, public or private.

Many countries operate such systems. Government's role would be to give parents the information on school performance that they need to become informed consumers.

It is clear that the steps the government has taken to date have not worked as well as it hoped.

The divide is growing and it is time to halt that growth.

Nothing should be ruled out on political grounds alone. We need to give working-class parents the choice that middle-class parents take for granted.

  • Prof Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Brunel University

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