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Skelton DaveDavid Skelton is the acting Director of Policy Exchange. Follow him on Twitter.

Universities Secretary David
Willetts has caused controversy by suggesting that white working class boys
should be considered in the same way as ethnic minorities in university
admissions.  This provoked howls of anguish from those who suggest that
such an idea stifles meritocracy. But Willetts has a point. Not enough working
class boys are going to university. It's also the case that working class boys
are more likely to struggle at GCSE level and more likely to become disengaged
from education. Ensuring that the accident of birth doesn't determine life
chances us the major reason that education reform is so important. 

The statistics certainly suggest that
Willetts is right. Research for the Sutton Trust found that private school
students are 55 times more likely than pupils on free school meals to win a
place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to win a place at one of the thirty
most selective institutions.  They also estimate that 3,000 state school
pupils have the necessary grades but do not get a place at these top thirty
universities.  15 per cent of schools and colleges offering A’ Levels last
year did not send a single pupil to a Russell Group University and 64 per cent
did not send one to Oxbridge.


These
figures imply a continuing class divide in education. And David Willetts is
also right to point to the gender divide.  Last year, 30 per cent of male
school leavers applied to university, compared to 40 per cent of female school
leavers. Universities are right to value their independence and protest against
arbitrary quotas, but they should remember that they are able to charge tuition
fees of £9,000 a year because of promises they made about widening access. And plenty of universities are making major
efforts to encourage applications, but the figures make clear that more needs
to be done if universities are to properly fulfil their role as engines of
social mobility.
There’s no point in just pinning the blame on
university admissions tutors. In truth, the entire education system lets too
many working class boys down.  Indeed, according to the IFS, there is a
stronger link between socio-economic status and educational attainment than in
almost every other Western country.

Just 29 per cent of white British boys on free
school meals achieved five GCSEs of between A-C grade last year – well below
the 62 per cent achieved by all 16 year olds.  This was the poorest
performance of any group other than Gypsy or Traveller children. Indeed, OFSTED
have been moved to talk about the “strong association between poverty and underachievement among
British white boys who qualify for free school meals or whose household income
is well below the national average.”

White, working class boys are also more likely
to be disengaged from education than other groups. Both the report by Andy Ross
for the Department for Education in 2009 and research by McIntosh and Houghton
found that white working class boys were one of the groups more likely to be
disengaged from education, often leading to regular truancy and a general
disinterest in education.  And there’s evidence that the class divide in
education starts at an early age. Children from the poorest fifth of families
have been found to be nearly a year behind children from middle income families
in vocabulary tests by the age of 5.

The great irony is that working class kids have
been let down by the very people who claim to be prioritising their best
interests. All too many people are happy to let dogma get in the way of the
best interests of working class children, despite compelling evidence that
education reform is necessary to improve the life chances of the poorest.

My old comprehensive school, in the working
class North Eastern town of Consett, is a great example of that. I saw so many
really gifted people at school leave with nothing like the kind of
qualifications that matched their talents. Little that was said at the school
encouraged pupils to aspire – there was certainly very little mention of
university and certainly no mention of Oxbridge. Since then, the school has
been revolutionised as a part of Tony Blair’s education reforms – being turned
around from ‘failing’ to ‘good’ and, in the words of The Guardian, “gaining a
national reputation for school improvement.” In 2003, only 12 per cent of year
11 pupils at the school gained 5 or more GCSE at A*-C, in 2010 that figure was
62 per cent.

There’s a similar story in London’s schools,
with the Financial Times suggesting that schools in the capital have undergone
a “startling turnaround.” During the six year period of the FT’s study the gap
between richer and poorer pupils narrowed in London, this was not replicated
anywhere else in England. London’s role as a trailblazer for schools reform has
meant that the improvement of its schools has been particularly marked.

There’s substantial evidence that education
reform is good for working class people, but still people on the ‘left’ object
for ideological reasons. We need to up the pace of schools reform to ensure
that the poorest children are given the best opportunity to succeed in life.
This also means ensuring that ‘satisfactory’ schools are not allowed to ‘coast’
and let the poorest children down. Failing schools should be forced to join
‘chains’ led by successful schools in order to turn their performance around.

We also need to consider how to narrow the
rich-poor divide across the educational spectrum. Some of the lowest quality
childcare provision is located in the poorest areas – meaning that many working
class kids are on the back foot before they even start school. By making the
childcare element of the Working Tax Credit larger and increasing the scrutiny
of local authorities’ role we can help improve both quality and affordability
of childcare in poorer areas.

And it’s crucial that we take action to tackle
the disengagement felt by many working class boys. A proper technical and
vocational strand, whilst maintaining core subjects like Maths and English is
essential to making this happen. This would help to reengage those pupils who
have been turned off by a strictly academic route, as well as providing the
skills that UK industry badly needs to compete. The Young Apprenticeships
programme, which involved school and college partnerships and some element of
work based learning was praised by teachers and led to improved GCSE
performance and some 95 per cent of participants remaining in further education
or training.  A vocational route would also provide another path to Higher
Education for pupils who might otherwise have lost interest in education
altogether.

These reforms also need to be accompanied with
improved careers advice and guidance in state schools.  All too often, the
guidance given to working class pupils is minimal or non existent, meaning that
they can lack a sense of purpose and direction, which worsens the disengagement
and worsens outcomes. Institute of Education research shows that 31 per cent of
people in a study in the North West who started A-levels dropped out. Better
advice and guidance could have prevented this by getting them on the courses
that were right for them in the first instance. Teachers and other role models
have an important role to play in raising aspiration for poorer pupils and
encouraging them to make the most of their potential. It’s also useful to
consider how voluntary organisations such as ‘City Year’, whose volunteers work
intensively with disengaged pupils, could be used to help reengage and boost
aspiration.

Class still matters in education. It’s still
undeniably and depressingly true that working class boys are less likely to do
well at GCSE, more likely to become disengaged from education and less likely
to attend university than almost any other group. It’s no longer a situation
that anybody should accept, nor is it acceptable to fall back on old, failed
dogma. Education reform is essential rather than optional. And it’s essential
because it will help people from working class backgrounds make the most of
their potential.

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