Chalk Talk: Why shouldn't we help white, working-class boys aim higher?

Just over 30 years ago – when I first started reporting on education – it was all about giving women equal opportunities and encouraging them to apply to university. There was concern that too few had the aspiration to go on to higher education or were likely to opt for economically important subjects such as science and engineering.

There was, I believe, a frisson of horror at the time, developing in a few of the all-boys' public schools at the thought of some of their places (note: they thought of them as their places) disappearing and going to girls instead.

Now the boot is completely on the other foot and we have to make efforts to persuade more boys – in particular white, working-class boys (who are almost the lowest-performing group in GCSE exams) – to apply to higher education.

That is why I metaphorically take my hat off to Universities Minister David Willetts for raising this issue on these pages and in an interview on our front page last week.

Willetts is not suggesting that there should be discrimination in favour of working-class boys instead of middle- class girls when awarding university places.

All he is saying is that universities should do their damnedest to persuade white, working-class boys to have the aspiration to apply to university – just as they do now with students in disadvantaged communities and those from ethnic minorities.

If universities do discriminate in favour of working-class boys (and I would argue there could sometimes be a case for it if they believe the individual has had more of a struggle to gain their qualification and, in the eyes of admissions tutors, has more potential than a rival candidate from the wealthy suburbs with the same qualifications), then that is something they have done. They are not being cowed into accepting some grand social engineering plan from on high.

So here's to anything that might stem from the initiative and – and if it leads to some more white, working-class children getting university places who otherwise would not have – then that's all to the good.

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