In the middle of my Year 13 tutor group’s UCAS application season, I am reminded of the abject misery of the university application process. The tiresome slog of a personal statement that some say is not worth the paper it is written on, the endless sessions on mock interviews, the reminders that missed homework or lateness to lessons may result in a failure to achieve a university place (as if admissions tutors are strategically positioned at the gates of each Sixth Form, marking down the minutes) – all of these things remind that I’m glad I’m not 17 and applying for university again.
It’s not the paper work that is the problem. The biggest issue that my students have faced is a total lack of awareness of the range of courses and careers that are available to them should they wish to apply to university and I do not blame the students at all; I was exactly the same.
At the point when I had to make my choices, I wanted to study English Literature at university but that was as far as it went. I may have uttered the word ‘journalism’ in a panic to a tutor once, or perhaps to my mother, who was more than a little frustrated at my lack of desire to make a lot of money doing something scientific. “All your friends are going to be pharmacists, or optometrists,” she would remind me, as if I hadn’t noticed that my A-Level choices of English Literature, French and History would not be the perfect stepping stone to a white lab coat.
As usual, I see a metaphor in all of this. My students are able to tell me that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer (when they’re not saying ‘footballer’ or ‘singer’). They see an entire field of study as their final destination – they see the tree. But they have a limited understanding of the ‘branches’. Have I ever taken the time to sketch out those branches for them? My students know there are careers, but not about the careers within careers. And to be honest, they are sitting at the bottom of those trees, looking up in confusion.
What experiences do students have of specific and personalised careers advice? An article in The Telegraph this afternoon serves as a depressing reminder of the gulf between careers advice in the state sector and careers advice in private schools. That gap is even more stark between schools with high proportions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and private schools, where the connections of a wealthy parent or two makes work experience in Year 10 a stratospherically different learning curve for the differing sets of students.
Personalise the Programmes
To close this gap, work in state schools needs to start early – and the key term for our students is personalisation. Our students have aspirations, but lack the connections and confidence to be able to seek out the branches of the careers they may be interested in. When a child arrives in secondary school, they need to sketch out the branches of those trees for themselves, to learn the range of jobs they could aspire to. This cannot be done in a twenty minute session with a careers adviser they will never meet again. Pastoral teams have to make time for this in tutor time, in assembly and in those one-to-one conversations with their tutees. Using technology as a tool to unlock the world of work is a starting point; one organisation, BigAmbition, specialising in digital careers has proactively sought to work with students to develop a quiz that asks questions about personal working preferences and personality – the Dream Job game is a way to start thinking about the branches of the tree that is ICT.
Think beyond university
Considering the cost of a university education, the figures on drop-out rates in tertiary education in the UK makes for sobering reading, particularly when you examine where the majority of students are dropping out of their degrees. Students at lower-ranking universities are more likely to drop out than at Oxford or Cambridge. One only needs to extrapolate a little to know that some students are being given advice that leads them to the right degree choice and others are not given enough advice that enables them to make education choices that are sensible and sustainable.
The sad implication is that it is unlikely that it is privately-educated students who are either attending the lowest-ranked universities or dropping out of them. So, choices become important – and those choice start with GCSE options in Year 9. I have seen schools hand students a piece of paper with a coloured blocking diagram and tell them to hand the slip back with a parental signature. Who do our students talk to, if their parents aren’t aware of the implications of GCSE choices at 14? Starting on an inappropriate pathway potentially leads to failure – and that failure has financial implications at the age of 18 or 19. There is no point in saying: “all of our students will go on to university” like that is the be-all and end-all of education. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose to go, they are going to the right place and studying the right course.
Get work experience right
For some students, Year 10 work experience is two weeks off school, sweeping floors in a supermarket. While learning the value of all fields of work is important, quite often, student feedback shows that students are frustrated by their work experience. It’s not an insight into the field they are interested in – and this is partly because the responsibility for administration and sourcing of placements is handed to external organisations. The work experience placements my students benefit from the most are those they’ve found themselves or those that have been recommended by their tutors. It is clear that state schools need to bring work experience back into the hands of the people who know the students best – their teachers. If that means hiring a full time member of staff to co-ordinate work experience and to source appropriate placements, that is what needs to be done.
It is not difficult to see that the fundamental difference between state and private education is the level of personalised careers advice that students are given. I know the statistics on the effect of parental income and education background on the trajectory of their child, but I cannot help but think that we are able to redress the balance between socio-economic groups if we attempt to see our students as individuals who need guidance earlier on, and in more detail. How hard can that be?
Paul Murphy MP, last week, called Welsh teachers out on their lack of ambition in getting students from state schools into Oxbridge. His statements only serve to put the proverbial icing on the cake in a week when Michael Gove has essentially called teachers lazy. I wonder if government ministers, Conservative or otherwise, will ever run out of negative adjectives to use about teachers. Perhaps they could stagger their verbal assaults – at least then, I’d be able to deal with them in one blog post at a time. I am more than a little disappointed in a former Labour Secretary of State for Wales wading in on the teacher bashing.
Back to the point. The idea that teachers are responsible for poor numbers of state school Oxbridge applicants is fascinating. It is wearying to see this issue crop up time and time again. Numbers of state school students applying to Oxbridge first appeared in 1852 when Royal Commissions for both Oxford and Cambridge showed that poorer students did not attend those venerable institutions. Why are we still having this same debate? And more to the point, why is it – 161 years after the first report on this issue – that we are now saying it is their teachers’ lack of ambition that has prevented students from applying to Oxbridge?
My experience has shown that, if anything, Oxbridge entrance is given top billing in state schools. It is still seen as the gold standard of university admission and teachers who are sixth form tutors are more than willing to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply. With an increasing number of Oxbridge graduates working in schools, there is a renewed focus on raising aspirations, using people who have been through that system themselves.
Many moons ago, when I was a student, there was a real sense of expectation around students who achieved those elusive top grades at A-Level. If you didn’t think it was for you, you were still pushed to place an application to Oxford or Cambridge, especially if, like me, you were from a minority ethnic background. I don’t remember a single teacher ever telling me that I shouldn’t apply or being particularly discouraging. I am conscious now, however, that my teachers saying I should apply for an Oxbridge place was not really about me as an individual, it was about state school statistics on Oxbridge entrance. I do feel quite cynical about it now. But it still does not mean that my teachers were unambitious.
I know that teachers are important to their students’ perceptions of the world they live in, but I am more than aware, too, that my students are not passive receptacles of information given to them in school. I certainly wasn’t, at that age. This is partly why I objected so violently to Boris Johnson’s comments about teachers being the reason that so many students hate Margaret Thatcher – apparently, we have indoctrinated them with our anti-Thatcher views. Students are, more than ever, exposed to political and social comment. They have access to the news in many different formats; they are more likely to communicate with each other via The Student Room, on Twitter and on Facebook. They learn about the world they live in from many different sources. If there is a hesitation on our students’ part to apply for those Oxbridge places, it may be because there is a collective awareness that it is hard to get in and that admission of state school students is lower than admission of students from independent schools.
If state school students are exposed constantly to the idea that Oxbridge is an elitist concept, then surely the barrier to be overleaped is that idea in itself. It is not a teacher’s lack of ambition that prevents a student from applying to one of those universities, it is the students’ own perceptions of them. It is certainly true that teachers I have worked with in the past eleven years have worked tirelessly to raise aspirations and to remind students that the perceived elitism is not a barrier to their ambitions.
As usual, teachers just need to keep powering through the criticism.
To change the record somewhat, it may be worth asking whether, in fact, there is too much focus on Oxbridge entrance. Times, they are a-changing. They have certainly moved on from when Paul Murphy himself went from a Catholic school in Pontypool to Oriel College, Oxford. Now, the Russell Group of universities, made of 24 of the best higher education institutions, has a wealth of excellent teaching facilities. One look at the rankings of universities according to subject makes it clear that if one is to go the ‘best’ university, it may not be Oxbridge for a particular subject. While both Oxford and Cambridge rank highly, they do not always rank at the top of the list. It begs the question, then, whether Paul Murphy’s comments are based on a real desire to see students receive the most cutting-edge, the most developed and most effective teaching at this level, or whether he – like many others, believes that having Oxford or Cambridge on your CV gives you an immediate advantage over anyone else. If that is the case, he is just perpetuating an elitism that teachers have been trying to eliminate for years.
For many students, regardless of their socio-economic background, Oxbridge may not be the right environment for them to flourish. Of course, there is evidence that many do. However, it is also interesting to note that one of key failings of the charter school movement in the US is around college drop-out rates. Charter schools laud their success in getting students from poor backgrounds into college, but are still trying to work out how to keep them there, particularly at Ivy League institutions. Where my own students have visited Oxbridge, some have indeed returned with the absolute belief that they do not want to go there. Why? Because they do not feel like they fit in. I realise that this idea will never change unless more state school students do apply and are admitted to Oxbridge – however, that perception of the institutions is not something that is created by teachers, it exists separately as a real barrier to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. We can be as ambitious as you like as teachers, but that doesn’t change the fact that a rarefied environment may be off-putting from students who believe, even in this day and age, that they don’t belong there.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I note Paul Murphy’s comments and that I raise a glass to my Welsh colleagues, who will soon be working with students to fill in UCAS applications to a wide range of universities, which may or may not include Oxbridge. Good luck all – keep your heads up.
This week saw the announcement, by AC Grayling et al, of a new institution called the New College of the Humanities. Grayling, along with noted academics such as Richard Dawkins, geneticist Steve Jones and that well known advocate of the Humanities, Jeremy Gibbs (a very rich man who seems to have made lots of money from private education and venture capitalism). The idea, in its simplest form, is this: in this current dog-eat-dog climate in which students have to think very carefully about which university courses to select to ensure that they are able to survive in recession-beaten Britain, the Humanities are being neglected as choices for further study because they don’t provide ‘safe’ job opportunities. Enter Grayling and his boys with a great idea. Let’s set up a private institution for the study of the Humanities and even though people are complaining that £9000 fees are ridiculously high for all the other universities, let’s charge double that – yes £18000 – for our courses. Obviously, this will have the desired effect. The Humanities will be saved and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Mr Grayling, I know that you haven’t had quite the reaction you expected to this brilliant new venture. Heckling, extensive negative news coverage, leading figures in politics and education pointing out what you should have known all along – that this creates a two-tier university system, privatising something that should be accessible to all and ensuring that centuries old elitism in access to universities is alive and well in the 21st century. For someone as smart as you, with your qualifications and elevated social standing, you might have anticipated the reaction. I mean, it’s not like students have been protesting against fees for the past twelve years.
My cohort of students starting university was the first to have to pay fees for university education. I recieved my bill for approximately £3000, had to fill in lots of forms to state that neither I, nor my parents, could afford a figure that high, and was finally informed that I would pay a reduced fee. People I came to know at university, with circumstances not so different from mine, didn’t necessarily get that reprieve – they had to pay the full whack. Cue large overdrafts and bank loans. The people I went to university with were clever and industrious. They were, and still are, the most intelligent people I had ever met. I can’t think of a single one who could have paid £18000 for their university education. The truth is, some of those people, who contribute to our society in all sorts of wonderful ways now, may not have chosen to go to university.
My Grayling and pals have also missed a fundamental point about students and their choice of university courses. Working in inner city London schools has taught me that it is ten times harder to convince a student who comes from a poor background that taking up a course in the Humanities at degree level is worthwhile. Students who have been told by their parents that they must go into a lucrative career to ensure that they don’t go through the hardships their parents suffered, don’t tend to study Ancient History, or see the need for Applied Ethics. So we come to something of a problem: these benevolent souls, in their quest to rescue the Humanities, have only managed to create yet another barrier to its study. The cycle of inaccesibility has been strengthened, rather than broken. Whether it is intentional or not, the good professors and their business sector supporters have reinforced a problem that has existed in the Higher Education sector for quite a long time. Poor students don’t study the Humanities, so it doesn’t matter whether we charge £18000 or not.
Providing bursaries or scholarships is lovely, but a little naive. Talk to my students, folks! As soon as the £9000 figure was touted as a possibility, they started saying they weren’t going to university. This wasn’t because they had added up the figures, made some astute calculations and put together a projection of their costs; it was because they and their parents were afraid. Afraid of worsening an already tight financial situation, afraid of failing – not because they weren’t smart enough – but because they wouldn’t able to afford the course, accommodation and subsistence. A very real fear if your life so far has been a symphony of anxiety related to money. These students wouldn’t even think of applying for a scholarship, because they would have already decided that this life, an expensive one, dedicated to the study of philosophy and dead languages, was not for them. One way to guillotine the Humanities.
My frustration comes from the belief that everyone benefits from the study of the Arts and Humanities. They are the subjects that make us more human. At time when humanity is struggling to find empathy, to find reason and to find the kind of enlightenment that leads to success and happiness, how can we think that privatising the Humanities in Higher Education is the way forward? It’s not just about creating a two-tier system, it is about saying to whole sections of society that this is not for you. You don’t need to know this.
Charles Watson, Chairman of PR Firm, Financial Dynamics, is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “Higher education in the UK must evolve if it is to offer the best quality experience for students and safeguard our future economic and intellectual wealth.” I absolutely agree, but not like this. The education sector in the UK, as a whole, must find education models that allow success for all students and models that are easily replicable across the sector. It’s a very cosy thing, this New College of the Humanities, more a vanity project than a real attempt to fix a real problem.
I’m surprised at AC Grayling. He knows his History pretty well, I imagine. Perhaps take another look at historical examples of societies in which the gap between rich and poor is substantial and increasing.
Off with their heads?