University entrance getting more difficult for poor pupils

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A senior government adviser has warned that Tony Blair's attempts to boost the numbers of university students from poor backgrounds are failing as England becomes more divided into a society of haves and have-nots.

Despite the injection of £300m into encouraging universities to widen recruitment, the proportion of students from poor backgrounds dropped this year, the adviser told a meeting in London yesterday, held under Chatham House rules of anonymity.

Young people from middle-class homes are now six times more likely to go to university than students from working-class backgrounds, the gathering of MPs, headteachers, university leaders and education experts heard. Poor students would not have a fair chance to attend university until there was a radical reform of the school system to ensure that poor children got better access to good schools.

"There's plenty of choice in the English school system at the moment - as long as you're not poor," he said. "In the UK, children from a wealthy background get a much better education than children from deprived backgrounds. People who can afford it can pay to go private, or move to the catchment area of a good school or pay for after-school tuition. Poor families have to stick with whatever school is available."

He called for the introduction of a voucher system which would fund a place at any school a parent chose - state or private - to give the poorest families more choice.

Throughout UK universities, the percentage of state school admissions fell from 87.2 per cent to 86.8 per cent last year.