The View From Here: University access is still unequal - this must change

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At first sight there may not appear to be much connection between the Government's proposals for raising levels of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and the Dearing Committee's deliberations on the funding of higher education - but, in my view, they are intimately related.

Dearing, by all accounts, has been much exercised by the social imbalance in higher education. This is dramatic and persistent. Thirty-five years ago, at the time of the Robbins Report, 28 per cent of university students came from working-class backgrounds. Today, in spite of a ninefold increase in places and not ungenerous support from the taxpayer, the proportion is 1 per cent lower.

Young people from wealthy areas are five times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest. The Committee has been afraid that shifting more of the costs to the students, as it surely must, will tend to disadvantage the less fortunate still further.

The universities have recognised the social disparity in access and, in their submission to Dearing, the vice-chancellors accepted the need to do something about it. Yet it would be wrong to infer from the bias, any bias on the part of the universities themselves. By the time applications are made, the die has long since been cast.

If we look back to A-level results and GCSE, we find the higher socio- economic groups over-represented among those doing well and the lower, under-represented. Indeed, comparing the social class distributions of A-level results and university admissions reveals that compensation in favour of working-class students is already taking place. Interestingly, the patterns for A-level and GCSE are not very different, suggesting that social background has already had its main impact by the age of 16.

Looking farther back, we find that social class is one of the key factors affecting whether a child does well or badly at primary school. A study on baseline testing in Wandsworth has found, at an even earlier age, a huge gap in the educational achievements of five-year-olds who are entitled to free school meals, and those not needing this support.

What has been identified as a higher education access problem is, in fact, an early years problem. The social class distribution of university students arises from differential performance during the years of compulsory schooling.

Changing the perspective in this way has two important policy implications. First, it frees the Dearing Committee to come up with the most equitable way it can find of enabling students to make a greater contribution towards the costs of their higher education, without worrying unduly about the likely social consequences (which arise elsewhere). But, second, it underlines the importance of the new government's targets for, in five years' time, 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach an appropriate standard of reading and 75 per cent to reach an appropriate standard of arithmetic. This compares with the 57 per cent and 55 per cent respectively in the 1996 tests.

There are some, myself included, who would regard even these targets as too low. It was sad, therefore, to find the National Association of Headteachers at their conference last week telling the Secretary of State that his relatively modest proposals would be impossible to meet. This reflects an attitude, prevalent in British education but unusual in world terms, that what a child learns is down to the individual rather than the school.

If we are to move to a fairer society, this will have to be changed. We have to get primary schools to accept that it is their responsibility to give all children a good start in life by bringing them up to specified levels in English and maths irrespective of their starting-points. This would be an appropriate way of judging school effectiveness.

Current approaches to primary education tend to exaggerate differences. It is assumed that children progress at different rates and so need tailored, individualised teaching, with the classroom split into several groups. In many other countries, such as Hungary, Switzerland and Japan, what children need to learn in common during the first years of schooling - to read, add and behave - is regarded as much more important than the differences. They organise education so that children are first taught how to learn and are then taken through carefully graded steps achieving mastery at each stage. The whole class is expected to progress as one, and all children (except those with special needs) are expected to reach the targets at the end of each school year.

Because the objectives are different, these countries have developed different classroom techniques. Rather than rejecting the Government's targets, our headteachers should be similarly looking to method.

With all children reaching specified levels of literacy and numeracy by the end of primary schooling, they would all have a sound platform for secondary education. As differences emerged, these would have more to do with abilities and interests than family background, which would show up in university access. The tong-term solution to social imbalance in higher education lies in refocusing primary education.

The writer is professor of Policy Research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.