John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
I believe that higher education is a valuable part of the social fabric, and a birthright in a civilised society that should be free to anyone who can get the grades. This view has been attacked from the Left by people like Blair and Sir Tim Brighouse, on the grounds that the main beneficiaries are the students, leading to elitism, and from the Right by neo-liberals, starting with The Economist, who see universities as businesses, and are opposed to nearly all forms of subsidy. Michael Gove put the point clearly in a recent television interview, when he said that if university was free, people who did not go to university would be subsidising those who did. The argument, of course, applies equally to family members of the students, including Michael Gove’s own parents, who, one supposes, did not object to his free education at Oxford.
One person who appears to agree that some, at least, of higher education should be free is the former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, who in 2014 became yet another left-leaning journalist to lead an Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall.
Rusbridger’s innovation has been a free foundation year for students from modest backgrounds who did not make the normal Oxford admission criterion of three As at A level, but who had at least three Bs. The success criterion of the foundation year is the assessed capacity to proceed to an upper-second class degree, either at Oxford or elsewhere; seven out of the group of ten students who have completed their first year were accepted at Oxford, with the remainder going on to other universities.
The merit of this scheme is that it does not follow the leftist “proportionality” argument of admitting students whether they make the grades or not, but puts them in a position to make the grades by providing the additional teaching of high quality that is available in the best of the private sector and in the best sixth forms, which are often in grammar schools. For far too long, sixth forms in most comprehensive schools have escaped scrutiny by declining to publish their full results by grade and subject, so that an accurate comparison of their results with those of grammar school sixth forms, and sixth form colleges, is not possible. In languages, some students who want to take an A level in a language simply can’t do so, because none of the comprehensive schools in their area offers one. This is a denial of opportunity and a waste of talent.
For this reason, I suggested to Justine Greening that grammar school expansion should be focused on extending their sixth forms and opening them up to qualified entrants from other local schools, if necessary by paying travelling expenses. Success at sixth form level opens the doors to the best universities, and hence to social mobility. I saw it happen in a leading grammar school shortly after the millennium, where the school had maintained its standards in the face of Labour’s funding cuts by expanding its sixth form and admitting girls. I hope that Damian Hinds will consider the approach carefully, as it the most cost-effective, and least controversial, way of restoring the values of grammar schools in areas where they have been cut out by comprehensive cartels.
Lady Margaret Hall’s experiment is complemented by systematic work on the part of Oxford as a whole, with each college allocated a geographical area to support. Wadham College, which has a particular focus on Luton, has raised £25m towards a target of £30m by 2020 towards a range of provision, including taster days for GCSE pupils, residential summer schools in politics, classics and engineering and a purpose-built centre of excellence. Wadham’s impact report notes a particularly strong effect from its summer schools, which, like Lady Margaret Hall’s provision, led to seven offers of Oxford places to students who otherwise might not even have applied. Once again, the goal is to enable pupils from all backgrounds to go as far as their talents will take them, and my own view is that schools such as these are likely to be more effective than any other provision in rescuing young people from the effects of poor teaching. If my proposal to expand grammar school sixth forms is taken up, there should be a similar scheme for transition from GCSE to A level.