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Mind The Gap

“Fairer Society’? As the cuts continue, will the gap in educational attainment keep growing?”

“Just 16 per cent of pupils who are eligible for free school meals progress to university in comparison to 96 per cent of young people educated in independent schools.” This may sound like a statistic from decades past, yet it is shocking to realise that these figures were published in 2010. Family income remains the most deciding factor in children’s educational attainment. Whilst the government continues to take austerity measures such as removing funding from education culminating in the rise of tuition fees and the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), we all ask ourselves this one question: will this problem not worsen the situation rather than leading us towards the ‘fairer society’ which Conservative rhetoric proposes?

Having come from a state school, to date the range in achievement from my first primary school class is vast. From a class of 28, we have one boy at Oxford studying Maths, around a quarter of us at university, the rest presumably in work whilst two boys are in prison, having not completed their final years of compulsory education. For our year, the theory applies; those of us from the slightly higher-income families proceeded to higher education. Others sadly did not have the same opportunity. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones, but the fact that this discrepancy still exists is horrendous. It has been reported that the recent removal of EMA will only continue to exacerbate the problem. £30 a week may not have kept the boys from my class out of prison, but nonetheless, the prospect of no financial support through sixth form, the increased costs of living, and the sight of tripled tuition fees could, not surprisingly, curb the enthusiasm and expectations of the average pupil. Working for minimum wage in an average 30 hour week, an 18-21 year old could earn £24,601 before tax. By comparison, the same three years spent at university could land them with the prospect of £53,000 worth of debt as estimated by the BBC. We all know, and hope, that having a degree will increase our earning potential regardless of the debt; however, the statistics are undeniably daunting. With continuing negative news headlines and statistics, what will it take to convince children from poorer backgrounds that education may be their route to success?

I spoke to Nasria, a student from a local Nottingham school that had a high number of students eligible for free school meals. She told me about the effect an inspirational teacher had on her aspirations and the attitudes of her class as a whole. “For most of my time at school I was completely unaware of the opportunities I had to continue with education. For me, I assumed that those who progressed to university did so because they were cleverer than me and there was nothing I could do about it. However, during year 12 I had a teacher whose lessons were innovative, exciting and interactive. He actually engaged with the class and got us excited about Chemistry. As a passionate teacher, rather than being loud and chatty the class became absorbed by his lessons.” When asked if she thought this teacher had affected her aspirations she said that he had “inspired” her to continue with education when she had previously not thought it possible. “As a child I never would have dreamt of going to university and with the recent rise in fees and general financial situation I was definitely deterred. However, my Chemistry teacher encouraged me to apply. I am about to enter the application process. I am so excited.”

In times of economic struggle and widening social divides, inspirational figures should not be the only remedy to the issue of educational disadvantage. Teach First is an independent educational charity that is striving to break the link between family income and educational outcomes. Their unique Leadership Development Programme seeks to take exceptional graduates and place them in schools facing challenging circumstances, to serve as inspirational figures for the students. The programme was founded in 2002 following a report which highlighted the correlation between income and educational achievement, so evidently this problem of social stratification was equally present in the ‘boom’ years, and while funding for this kind of project may run out, the demand for inspiring teachers will not. It may seem that ‘everyone’ goes to university these days, but it is not as natural a progression for all sectors of society, least of all those who endure the most financial hardships.

Elizabeth Hill

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4 Comments on this post.
  • Andrew
    27 December 2011 at 10:25
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    I applaud your article, but I think we must remember that anyone, within reason, can go to university. There are no upfront fees and maintenance loans are provided as well. If the choice exists, should we really condemn people from poorer backgrounds not choosing university?

  • Martin
    30 December 2011 at 01:14
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    What number of students who are on free school meals achieve the required qualifications to enter university and those that don’t, why not? It may be certainly true that those on free school means may be less likely to go to university, but it may not be because of spending on higher education.

    As has been said, the fees system is very fair w.r.t paying back the loan. If you are from a poor background the new system is incredibly generous, especially considering the system existing students are under.

    I really like your article and I think that it promotes a more neutral view missing from the main stream media who focus on the fees as a negative. Its nice to see that there are teachers out there promoting higher ed, there needs to be more teachers like this but I agree it can’t be the only solution.

    The government has spent a lot of time trying to justify the new fees including explaining the fairness of the new system – even this university has poured a lot of resources into “Widening Participation” to promote to potential students who may feel university is not for them but may be more than suitable in reality. Unfortunately organisations like the NUS have done nothing but try to discourage potential students by claiming that students will be indebted beyond belief (not true) and that higher ed. is unaffordable (really not true).

  • Naomi
    30 December 2011 at 15:17
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    This article coincides with Teach First’s push on campus to get more of our graduates to apply for their programme. There’s always a shortage in the sciences- was the ‘inspiring’ teacher working for Teach First by any chance? I don’t think this article engages with what some of the more severe issues will be… There are limits to good teaching if young people have bad parents, broken families, they may be in foster care, they may have family members who actually condone a criminal lifestyle… Young people that are this disadvantaged because of their backgrounds need something more than inspiration from an adult that they probably can’t relate to anyway.

  • Will the cuts widen the educational attainment gap? | Ones to Watch
    4 January 2012 at 22:18
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