Free schools 'must increase their intake of poorer pupils'


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The Independent Online

New free schools should be blocked unless they pledge to increase the number of pupils from poor homes attending leading universities, the Government's social mobility tsar declared yesterday.

Alan Milburn, a former Labour minister, yesterday outlined a series of radical measures aimed at increasing the number of disadvantaged students going to the most selective institutions. His report also called on all Russell Group universities to sponsor academies in deprived areas, and guarantee pupils at these schools interviews if they applied for a place.

Mr Milburn, who was appointed by David Cameron to advise on social mobility and child poverty, also urged universities to make lower A-level offers to students from less advantaged communities. Admissions staff should also use contextual data such as school performance and home background before deciding on admissions. At present, about 40 per cent of universities do so.

On the free schools policy, the report argues: "It [the Government] should make the creation of free schools conditional upon increasing the proportion of their pupils, especially those from less well-off backgrounds, who get a place at a leading university. I'm a supporter of free schools but I think on the condition that free schools don't just end up in the leafy suburbs and are attracted into the disadvantaged areas instead. That's a big opportunity."

If they failed to deliver on pledges to widen university participation, they should be subjected to the same "failure regime" faced by other schools through Ofsted inspections.

Mr Milburn was also critical of the Governemt's decision to scrap educational maintenance allowances (EMAs) of up to £30 a week to encourage 16-year-olds to stay on at school. He said that universities could step into the gap "to provide financial support to promising disadvantaged pupils", as well as sponsoring academies.

"I think, if the University of Oxford or Cambridge decided to sponsor a special academy in a disadvantaged area maybe encouraging pupils to put in for Oxford or Cambridge and they had an ongoing relationship with the teachers and pupils, that could have a fantastic effect," said Mr Milburn.

"They wouldn't be getting candies on a plate but imagine the impact on aspiration and expectation if that could be done."

In the past, Oxford and Cambridge have said they would not want to put all their eggs aimed at widening participation in the basket of one school.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, added: "Some of our universities already sponsor academies – but our links should not be limited to this: there are other valuable activities such as summer schools, conferences and other outreach."