Any fool can go to university and get a “confetti” first

Any fool can go to university and get a first. Or can they? Dan Howells on press narratives and the next decade

Significant strides have been made over the past 10-15 years to address educational inequality.

The vision for success is clear, and progress is being made – there is momentum behind the basic tenet that a child’s background should simply not be a limiting factor in determining future potential or opportunity.

But we also need to be realistic. The 2016 “State of the Nation” Social Mobility Commission Report said that “there are no easy fixes when it comes to cracking Britain’s social mobility problem. Change will take time. The next decade should be one of deep-seated social reform”. It is a simple truth that the Office for Students and universities alone cannot fix the higher education “access problem”.

And even when they try, they are challenged. An article appeared recently in the Shropshire Star highlighting the comments of Tim Firth, the Head Teacher of Wrekin College – a fee paying private school in Wellington near Telford, with the eye catching headline that “Any fool can go to university…schools need to take a new approach”. Is he right?

Firth further states that “even after pupils get into university, high degrees are being awarded like confetti to seduce the next generation of fee-paying students into applying” and that “employers in the future should ask what were your A level grades rather what did you get at university and which one did you go to?”. How can we respond to Firth’s critique?

Any fool

In 2013, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced in the government’s Autumn Statement that the cap on England’s student numbers was to be lifted in 2015, with Osborne stating:

“In 1963, Robbins said that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. That was true then, I believe it should remain true today.”

But what do “ability” and “attainment” mean? Back in March 2013, the then Schools Minister, David Laws MP, stated:

“Over the last decade, there has been a welcome focus on raising standards in English education…We still have some way to go to raise levels of attainment to acceptable levels in all schools…Even as overall attainment has risen over the last decade, the attainment gap has remained stubbornly wide…It is unacceptable that in our country there is such an enormous gap between the life chances of children from poor backgrounds and other children”.

The situation he described – of economic circumstances playing a significant role in determining a child’s educational success in Key Stage 4 and beyond – remains stubbornly true today. A key barrier, particularly for young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing higher education, remains securing the required grades.

As Laws said, “last year only 38% of disadvantaged pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths, or equivalent qualifications, versus 65% of other pupils”. The fact that right now a young person in care has a greater percentage chance of spending time in prison than progressing to higher education should be considered as an ongoing shame on our advanced and “civilized” society.

Responding not reacting

It’s easy to just “react” to Mr Firth’s comments. But to respond, I reflect back to just a few months ago when a member of my university Access and Outreach team received her degree result. I was with her in our office when she rang her mother, and as she shared her news (that she has achieved a First Class Honors Degree), she burst into tears; a mixture of both relief and pure joy.

She is the first in her family to study at a university, and after initially pursuing a career as a chef, she decided to change course. After working with a member of our academic team to assess her ability, she was offered a place at our university. We saw real potential in her when others may not have done. I know first-hand the sacrifices she has made and the sheer desire and commitment she has displayed to achieve her degree result, and the future career and the contribution to society that I know that she will make.

Close to 70% of our undergraduates are, like my colleague, the first in their family to study in higher education, and almost half our student body are mature students seeking to re-train and enhance their future life opportunities. They have real ability and her “First” is real attainment.

These are students who graduate year on year where the evidence indicates that the step required to get to higher education is larger, and the barriers they face along the way are greater than it is for their peers.

That’s why Firth’s encouragement for employers to ask in the future “what A-level grades rather than what did you (a student) get at university” is deeply flawed. It would be much better for employers to consider the broad blend of character traits, interests and levels of attainment achieved by each young person they meet, and gain an understanding of the context in which they were achieved. As the Director of Fair Access, Chris Millward, stated in July 2018, “A level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved”.

The past and the future

Two crucial factors since 2013 have enabled us to redefine “ability” and “attainment”. The intensification of access regulation has put us under pressure to find talent and potential, and expansion during a demographic dip has enabled us to offer that talent and potential a place at university.

The next decade may not be so forgiving. As the number of 18 year olds increases, applicants with “traditional” A level achievements will increase in number – and Firth et al won’t go away. It means that we will have to work harder than ever to protect opportunities for those without the standard qualifications, and get much better at communicating the work we have done to spot potential when we see it. It may also mean convincing Mr Firth that alternatives to university aren’t only for my access colleague – they may actually be for his students too.

As I type this, I am drafting an invitation to Mr Firth to join me at one of our 2020 graduation ceremonies. I would love for him to join me in celebrating the wonderful achievements of our hard working students and see the pride on the faces of their loved ones as they do so. I sincerely hope that he will take up the offer. I will even bring the confetti.

2 responses to “Any fool can go to university and get a “confetti” first

  1. Wolverhampton saw a x5 increase in the proportion of students achieving Firsts over a 10 year period and something like a 20x increase in unconditional offers over a 5 year period, as reported in the education media. Firth can answer his critics for himself but perhaps Dan Howells could comment on whether shifts as dramatic as these can be explained entirely by an access triumph, impressive though outreach undoubtedly is at the university.

  2. Given that the over-riding factor affecting achievement & social mobility in the UK is “disadvantage”, perhaps our children & our society in general would all be better served by us tackling this problem by challenging the societal behaviours (Yes, I do mean substance-abuse, criminality, marital & relationship breakdown & poverty) & Governmental policies (encouraging both partners in relationships to work full time & undermining the importance of marriage) which lead to “disadvantage” rather than unfairly expecting (and pretending) that our hard-pressed schools can achieve “bridge the gap” after the event…

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