Tag Archives: social mobility

Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.

Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.

This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.

Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.

But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.

Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.

The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.

It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.

This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.

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GCSEs, class and inequality

I’m always struck at this time of year by the huge amount of pressure we place so early on the shoulders of young people. That pressure is evident in the relief of the students (and their parents) who gain the GCSE results they are hoping for, and in the despondency of those who don’t.

As someone who left school at 16 with no qualifications I always feel a desire to reassure people that, just as doing well in your GCSEs is not a definitive measure of your worth, not getting good GCSEs is not the end of the world either. There are plenty of opportunities down the line, plenty of ways of making good and doing something useful in your life. There are as many ways to become a success as there are people to become successful.

This was true in the 1980s when I left school. I was able to take GCSEs and A-levels at my local college, get onto a ‘pre-entry’ journalism course and start out as a reporter at a good regional paper at 19. A few years later I left my job to take a degree as a mature student, funded by my local education authority (seeing all of this in black and white I’m surprised at just how definitively the language dates me).

Many of these opportunities are still there, though the costs, of course, are much higher – eye-wateringly so in the case of higher education. Yet, as the latest UCAS figures show, this is not necessary deterring people, even people from the least advantaged backgrounds, from accessing higher education. And, while part-time numbers show no sign of returning to previous levels (and this remains extremely bad news for us as a society, a democracy and an economy – as well as for the diverse sort of higher education system the government says it wants to see), full-time mature student numbers appear to be picking up.

This is welcome news for the government, which will see the latest figures as a vindication of its reforms, and, in particular, of the underlying fairness of the fees and loans system it has introduced. Evidently, the generous loan terms the government was able to offer have been a factor in maintaining student enrolment numbers, but there is another more important reason, I think – the same reason that 16 years olds approach GCSE results day with so much apprehension: the costs of failure in our society can be huge and are much, much harder to reverse than they were, for example, in the eighties when it was still possible to enter a profession like journalism without a degree or even a decent set of A-levels.

This is why discussions of social mobility often founder – they do not first address the underlying problem of social inequality. Social mobility, of course, cuts both ways. You can go down the escalator as well as up. One of the main reasons middle-class parents have become so adept at hoarding opportunity – and excluding others from it – is that the gap between those who do succeed, gaining a degree from a good university and accessing the professions, and those who don’t and find themselves grinding out an existence close to the poverty line, has become so great that the consequences of failure are too enormous to contemplate. And every parent wants the best for their kids. It’s a fight, and pretty bloody one, almost from the off.

Of course, in Britain (or do I mean England?), we love putting someone in their place. Weighing someone up, by the way they speak, the way they dress, whether or not they went to university, or, if they did, which university they went to, is close to a national sport. Selection, at 16 or 18, plays nicely to something fundamental about our national psyche: vocational or academic, Russell Group or red brick, pre-1992 or post-1992, Oxbridge or any of the others – it’s even played out among the upper echelons, in the refined thuggery of the Bullingdon Club and its ilk.

It’s obvious too that the ways in which we select, though in some respects plainly unfair, are just as plainly doing a good job, from the point of view of preserving advantage and ensuring the distribution of opportunity remains unequal. For that reason they are incredibly hard to change (imagine what the Daily Mail would say!) – just as our absurd system of taxpayer-supported public schools is considered politically unassailable, though it is at the heart of much that is unfair and divisive in our society.

The same kind of snobbery runs through the educational offer you can expect to find at the kind of institution or course to which you are selected. The kind of rounded, liberal education capable of producing George Davie’s ‘democratic intellect’ is increasingly the province of the privileged few, for whom history, culture, politics and the arts are considered a part of day-to-day life, essential preparation for a fulfilling existence. For everyone else, preparation for employment is all that is needed (though it’s becoming clear that simply preparing someone for work is no adequate preparation for work).

The result of all of this is more entrenched social inequality and a working class which struggles to assert its political voice or which, in many cases, has given up on politics altogether. This will no doubt be celebrated by some – one dimension of the triumph of Thatcherism over organized labour – but it is disastrous for democracy and for our society as a whole. The voiceless working class bears the brunt of austerity politics while great institutions like the NHS are gradually picked apart for profit without democratic mandate. The vast amount of talent and enterprise that is permitted to go to waste is horrible to think about. The narrowing of opportunity for adults to study what they want, for reasons other than employability, is a serious indictment of our civilization.

Sixteen is depressingly early to write someone off, yet, all too often, this is the routine outcome of a combination of selection and few second chances. There is a human cost to all of this. Huge social inequality is not just damaging to economic growth it makes people at the bottom feel worthless, that they are less than human. It also cultivates a sort of indifference, bordering on contempt, among those at the top for those ‘below’ them. Crucially, I think, it prevents people from recognizing their commonality, and their common needs – those things in virtue of which we really are all ‘in this together’. Narrowing educational opportunities – particularly the kind of liberal adult education opportunities that inspired the likes of the Pitmen painters and have now all but disappeared – makes it that much harder for people to see further or to find ways to effect social and political change. It is difficult to see where the kind of fundamental change we need will come from. But it is just as difficult to imagine how we can continue as we are. Perhaps a place to start is with the recognition that people not only need resources and opportunities to move up the social ladder but also that these resources and opportunities must be available throughout life – rather than for a fleeting moment on which all of one’s future life chances appear to hang.

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1963 and all that: What Robbins thought about mature students

When Lionel Robbins published the report of his committee on higher education in the United Kingdom in October 1963, higher education in the UK was an elite system, run by and for a small proportion (less than five per cent, predominantly male) of the population, many of whom were fiercely resistant to the thought that expansion might be either feasible or desirable, for reasons which appear now to amount to little more than a combination of class spite, snobbery and chauvinism.

While that was already beginning to change, thanks to a range of social and economic pressures that were slowly teasing open the doors of the academy (there were 31 universities at time of publication, including seven which had been founded within the previous five years), the Robbins report provided a compelling rationale for the rapid expansion of the system, arguing that higher education courses ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the ‘Robbins principle’). Its main recommendations, including the proposal that ‘colleges of advanced technology’ be awarded university status, were accepted by the Conservative government of the day within 24 hours of publication and the further expansion of the university system began almost immediately.

As Lord Moser, one of the few surviving members of Lord Robbins’ team, recalls, the report ‘changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education’. Critically, it demolished the contention that there was a strictly limited ‘pool of ability’ at the level of higher study, arguing instead that there was a large pool of untapped talent which the country could not afford to ignore. Robbins recognised that this was an economic issue, of course, but his view of the purposes and potential benefits of higher education was much broader than that. He set out four objectives for a ‘properly balanced system’: ‘instruction in skills’; the promotion of ‘the general powers of the mind’ so as to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’; to maintain research in balance with teaching so that teaching is not separate from ‘the search for truth’; and to transmit ‘a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The return on education, he argued, was ‘not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. Higher education was an important public good which should be supported largely through the public purse.

Robbins also recognised the importance of ‘second chance’ education and saw that the prevailing model of full-time residential education would not suit everyone. He urged that greater provision be made for mature students, recommending the ‘rapid development’ of courses for adults, and encouraging universities to admit ‘non-standard’ students. Higher education, the report said, ‘is not a once-for-all process. As the pace of discovery quickens it will become increasingly important for practitioners in many fields to take courses at intervals to bring them up to date … there are far too few students taking refresher courses and courses of further training’. It was particularly important, it continued, that such courses were made available for women returning to work after raising children and that these women were financially supported in their studies. He appreciated that full-time study would not necessarily be the right mode for delivery for this group.

The report also gave recognition to the important role of liberal adult education in giving students without advanced qualifications an opportunity to engage in higher study. It called for the further development of full-time courses for adults in residential colleges, such as Coleg Harlech and Ruskin College, and recommended that ‘consideration should be given to assisting them in the immediate future by capital grants and also by enabling suitable entrants to obtain adequate financial support for their studies’. Highlighting the activities of extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local authorities in providing adult education, the report noted that demand existed ‘on a large scale’ and that there was ‘clearly much scope for further development, in conjunction with the television services, for example, and other new media of communication. We hope that the universities and their partners will cooperate in this task. If this country is to maintain its proud record [in contributing to ‘the general education of the community’], further support for this kind of study will be needed in the future’.

Robbins didn’t see mature study merely as a nice-to-have but, rather, as an essential part of a university system within which everyone with the ability to study has the opportunity to do so. It is also clear that Robbins is not arguing for new types of institution to cater for these ‘non-standard’ students. The needs of the future, the report says, ‘should be met by developing present types of institution’ in such a way that ‘irrational distinctions’ and ‘rigid barriers between institutions’ are not perpetuated. While ‘it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others’, it says, ‘[t]here should be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies; on the contrary there should be recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists and wherever it appears’. Robbins’ vision allows for difference in function, where difference rests on ‘excellence in the discharge of functions’, but not for rigid differences in status. Equally, he did not look to different kinds of institution to cater for different kinds of student but, rather, expected that, as the system expanded, mature and other ‘non-standard’ students would become part of the institutional life of every university.

So, what has been the long-term impact of the Robbins report on widening participation, particularly for mature students? The Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all who are qualified and wish to study has underpinned developments in widening participation and lifelong learning, including the expansion of higher education opportunities to students who do not fit the traditional profile of 18 or 19 year old school leavers. There has been a huge expansion in total student numbers. There are now around 2.5 million students in the UK compared to a quarter of a million when Robbins published his report. By 2009 mature students (those aged 21 or over) represented almost a third of the first-year undergraduate population. At the same time there was a comparable growth in the numbers of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are classed as mature. Robbins was a catalyst for much of this change.

Yet, in some respects, I suspect the nature of the change would have disappointed Robbins and his committee. Although most institutions now welcome mature and part-time students it is clear that they are more welcome in some than in others. Much of the growth in numbers has been thanks to ‘new’ universities, including the former polytechnics whose foundation, in the mid-sixties, introduced into the system the sort of binary division Robbins argued against. The division survived the merging of polytechnics into the university sector in 1992 (we now have ‘pre-’ and ‘post-92’ institutions). Although these institutions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening participation and opening up opportunities, for mature and part-time students in particular, there remains, in the eyes of the media, at least, and perhaps the public too, an impression that these institutions offer second-class higher education. At the same time, the innovation shown in these institutions has obscured the fact that many ‘elite’ institutions have remained stubbornly resistant to change, with a corresponding failure to widen participation to the extent of newer institutions, in which mature students (and other under-represented groups) have remained concentrated. For many of these older institutions more has not necessarily meant different, and they remain more or less rooted in the notion of universities as residential finishing schools for already privileged youngsters.

After 50 years, Robbins’ vision remains compelling. Universities minister David Willetts has made much of the continuity between the Robbins report and his own government’s vision for higher education. Certainly, the loans system devised and introduced by the coalition makes serious efforts to ensure that higher education remains accessible to all who have the talent, irrespective of ability to pay, despite the huge escalation in fees. The extension of loans to part-time students for the first time would also have pleased Robbins, particularly given his concern about women’s access to higher education. However, while there is some continuity, there are also large differences, which are more fundamental. Critically, Robbins thought very differently about the purposes and benefits of higher education. The coalition view of the benefits of university has narrowed beyond recognition to a truly grim utilitarian calculation based on individual earnings. Robbins, on the other hand, takes a much broader view, acknowledging the role of universities in creating rounded, cultivated individuals capable of promoting ‘common standards of citizenship’.

Mr Willetts notes that the Robbins committee considered the introduction of loans and that, in later life, Robbins came to regret the decision not to do so. This suggests common ground but, again, the differences are profound, and instructive. While the committee considered loans it also raised concerns that fear of debt would be a significant disincentive to students from non-traditional groups. And while Robbins may have come to think differently about loans in some respects, it is clear that he was never entertaining the possibility of loans to cover the full cost of a degree. This is because Robbins explicitly rejects the idea that the benefits of education ‘can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. The wider benefits to society are of much greater importance; a recognition that underpins Robbins’ notion of higher education as an important public good, deserving of public support. He saw that the whole of society benefits from an educated citizenry capable not only of contributing to the economy but of playing a full part in civic life. It was likely that the ‘social advantages’ of investing in education greatly out-weighed the commercial ones, he argued.

A difference in approach is reflected also in the dramatic decline in part-time and mature student numbers – something which would have greatly dismayed Robbins who was acutely aware of the importance of this sort of provision both to the economy and to efforts to widen participation (particularly to women seeking to return to education after having children). Full-time mature student applications have fallen by more than 18,000 (a 14 per cent decline) since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time, part-time student numbers have collapsed, by 40 per cent, according to HEFCE figures. These shocking numbers would, I think, have appalled Robbins, but they may not have surprised him. In the section of his report on adult education, he highlights the need for ‘adequate financial support’ for mature students. Later, in considering the possible impact of a system of loans, he recognises that fear of debt can produce ‘undesirable disincentive effects’. He also observes that any drop in recruitment to higher education by those with the talent for it (but not the resources to fund it) is not only a private loss to the individual but a ‘social loss’.

It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study part-time. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities to the kinds of adult student Robbins was particularly concerned about and lending meaningful support to his conviction that education is not a ‘once-for-all process’. Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the very welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and there remains a serious risk that the loans system will ultimately result in a two-tier system, with less-advantaged ‘non-standard’ students obliged to opt for the low-cost, ‘second-class’ model, while the elite institutions remain the preserve of the already privileged. This, I imagine, would be just about the last thing Robbins would have wanted.

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HE and social mobility: the problem of mature and part-time students

Alan Milburn’s justified criticism of the government’s decision to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – a ‘very bad mistake’, he argues – may have grabbed the headlines, but there is much else that is good and useful in his thoughtful, intelligent report on the role of higher education in advancing social mobility.

Particularly welcome is the recognition that higher education is an important public and social good – as well as an economic one. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning noted, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. Higher education is as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills. It is about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfilment as much as it is about equipping them for work. And while nobody would deny that it makes a critical contribution to the economic success of the country, to create a system that, in Lord Dearing’s words, can ‘inspire and enable’ individuals from every background to ‘develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life’, a wider vision is necessary, and Milburn’s acknowledgement of the diverse purposes of higher education is important.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important in achieving both economic growth and greater social mobility. For that reason, it is good to see the consideration given to mature and part-time students in the report, and the concerns Milburn raises about the substantial fall in applications from mature students and the steep drop in part-time numbers expected in admissions for this year. He is also right to highlight the failure of the government to adequately communicate the new fees regime, particularly to part-timers and mature students, whom it appears to have deterred. As he notes:

While there has been considerable effort to target potential applicants from schools and colleges that go through the UCAS system, others, including mature students and part-time students, have been left out. Evidence from outreach teams suggests that part-time students are confused by, or simply unaware of, the loan support that is now available to them. Applications from this group have significantly dropped across the sector at universities which specialise in part-time students, and there is a risk that what should be a good news story regarding the extension of loans to part-time students will turn into a bad news story, as people are put off applying through a lack of effective information.

The report calls for the government to broaden its communications effort ‘to include applicants who are not coming straight from school’ and to develop ‘a new strategy for encouraging non-traditional students – especially mature and part-time students – into higher education’. It is to be hoped that ministers act on this suggestion and think seriously about how to improve their messaging to these groups.

Milburn argues, rightly in my view, that some of the government’s key policy interventions in higher education are likely to have unintended negative consequences for social mobility, in particular the so-called ‘core and margin’ mechanism, which allows ‘unconstrained recruitment of high achieving students (AAB+) and creates a ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 places available to universities charging £7,500 or less in tuition fees. There is a danger that these reforms could further polarise the HE system, with elite institutions competing for high-achieving students and other, middle-ranking, institutions forced to cut costs (and, in some cases, inevitably, standards) in order to compete for the flexible margin of places. In particular, the unconstrained recruitment of AAB+ students will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at highly selective institutions. Milburn says:

Such polarisation would be deeply damaging and could have undesirable consequences for social mobility if able candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds felt constrained to choose lower-cost provision. Indeed, it could create a vicious cycle in which those universities which charge less will have less scope to invest in facilities and to enhance the student experience, with the result that they may find it increasingly difficult to attract high-achieving students or those from wealthier backgrounds, regardless of the quality of teaching on offer.

Milburn’s calls for the sector to make the use of contextual data ‘as universal as possible in admissions processes’, and to standardise it, are also welcome. Many universities already make use of contextual information, for example, family income and the type of school attended by applicants, in admissions, but it should be used more widely. It is of particular importance to ‘second chance’ adult students who are less likely to have conventional qualifications. I support Milburn’s rejection of the distinction between ‘equity and excellence’ and support his argument that ‘over-reliance on A-level results engineers a distorted intake to universities, and fails to meet the criteria of excellence’. There is evidence that students who attended state schools perform better in finals compared to privately-educated pupils with the same A-level scores. It is clear that, in many cases, university admissions systems do favour students from private schools.

There are many other positives in Milburn’s report. There are sensible proposals for shifting resources away from bursaries and fee waivers towards outreach and support for students while studying, and for more and better evidence as to what approaches to outreach work best. And it is good to see recognition in the report of the important role played by HE in further education colleges in enhancing the diversity of the higher education sector, and of the need to increase the proportion of apprentices entering higher education. Milburn’s calls for greater long-term investment in education, with more public and private investment in higher education, and for an expansion in student numbers to allow more part-timers and mature students into the system, also deserve support.

Milburn is also right to say that the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and its replacement with a new system of discretionary support (‘inadequate,’ Milburn says) was a serious mistake, though there are concerns, voiced by new universities group Million+, that making universities responsible for providing financial incentives for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds could create a ‘postcode lottery’ that might lead to the exclusion of many students. Universities will be reluctant to fill the funding gap left by the withdrawal of the EMA and more thought needs to be given as to how an adequate alternative to the scheme can be funded.

In some respects, Milburn’s proposals are too narrow. While he does well to highlight significant concerns about mature and part-time student applications, much of his report is overly focused on younger, full-time students, and there is not enough on how to encourage participation among adults who are not currently learning in institutional settings. Milburn’s proposals for incentivising young people to stay on and succeed at school will do nothing to help mature students and there is little here to address specific support and retention issues facing older and part-time students. More attention too might have been given to the role of families in supporting young people into higher education, and the critical part family learning can play in transforming attitudes and aspiration. There are dangers in the report too, not least that the collective use of ‘statistical targets’ could seriously limit institutions’ capacity to respond flexibly to local circumstance and their own distinct challenges on admissions.

Participation in higher education remains painfully unequal, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities that the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. Milburn is right that universities, and in particular highly selective universities, need to do more to help raise aspiration and attainment and to identify excellence wherever it is to be found. He is also right to dismiss objections that the focus ought to be solely on schools and that a university place should be determined solely by attainment at A-level. Every university should seek to do more to widen participation and make access fairer, and the government should work to ensure a policy framework that makes this easier rather than harder. It is to be hoped that Alan Milburn’s report will reopen debate about the future and purpose of higher education and, critically, get us all thinking hard about what to do about the troubling decline in mature and part-time student admissions.

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‘Knowledge is power’: adult education and community development

At the start of the summer I visited a project in Ely, one of the poorest districts in Cardiff and, indeed, in the whole of the UK – an area with a population of 30,000 people but not a single bank. The project was inspirational for me, demonstrating the remarkable resilience and creativity of people faced with odds which, in our unequal and socially immobile society, could understandably be viewed as insurmountable. It also, I felt, offered a powerful illustration of the capacity of adult education to reinvigorate lives and communities – giving people the confidence and know-how to act on their sense of civic duty – and of the difference adult education can make to a range of critical policy agendas, from employability to neighbourhood renewal.

I write in more detail about the project here. Briefly, a group of mums from Ely’s most disadvantaged neighbourhood – an area still scarred by the rioting and petrol bombing of the early 1990s – came together in 2006 to learn IT skills to better support their children through school. They used their IT skills to self-publish their own local newsletter, the Grand Avenue Times, from which the group took its name. More women joined as a result, and, with the support of the local authority adult learning service and a range of other partners, including the Open University and the Workers’ Educational Association, the group put on more courses, using disused rooms at their local school – rooms they renovated using some of the practical and craft skills they had learned.

Some of the women took peer education classes to pass on their new skills to other women, while others became advocates for their community. Members of the group found work as a result of their involvement, others started volunteering, but all of them reported an increased sense of confidence and self-belief, frequently manifested in a desire to make their communities better places in which to live. ‘Knowledge is power’ became the group’s self-consciously assertive slogan. All of the women had a story to tell about how they had reached this point in their lives. One had learned to read and write through her involvement with the group; another overcame depression and weaned herself of anti-depressant drugs. All found learning stimulating and transformational. Yet few, if any, would have had the confidence to take a further education course in a more formal setting.

What does the experience of this group and its members – an experience echoed in the work of community-based education projects across the country – tell us about the role adult education, and community adult education, in particular, can play in responding to the challenges faced by communities like Ely. I think it’s possible to pick out three overarching themes, familiar to community adult educators wherever they work, which position adult educators at the heart of the civic renewal agenda: engagement; developing community capacity and self-reliance; and taking learning outside the classroom.

The Grand Avenue Times (GAT) group had particular success in engaging in learning individuals furthest away from formal education; those often termed ‘hard to reach’. The key to this success was that the project was firmly planted in the immediate environment. It started where people were in their lives, in terms both of location and outlook. It began with things that concerned them, that mattered to them (and what matters more to parents than their children’s futures?). The local authority supported the group, but it came to its meetings with a listening brief, careful always to ask what learning would benefit them before working with partner providers and funders to deliver the courses. It demonstrated that course topic needn’t be a barrier to adult education with a genuine social purpose. The important thing was to begin with what engages and interests people. GAT started with a conversation in a playground about how the mums could better support their children’s learning. Blackburn with Darwen Council’s much-lauded success in engaging Asian men in learning began by getting someone to spend time in a local mosque simply listening to people talk about the learning they were interested in doing. In this case, a swimming class was the hook from which a wide-ranging programme of opportunities developed.

Cardiff’s adult learning service ensured that listening was not a one-off exercise but formed part of an ongoing process, developing genuinely self-directed learning intended to build community capacity and eventual self-reliance. Students were encouraged to think about new courses – new skills they wanted to develop – and what would be good for them as a group to learn. Working as a group proved to be an effective way of building confidence, developing cooperative behaviour and boosting learners’ sense of agency and negotiation skills, while gradually building networks of peer support. The aim from the start was that the group should be self-sustaining, a permanent network within the Ely community, giving local people real voice, real agency, and helping bring about change at grassroots level. Along the way, the group developed its own social enterprise, selling some of the craft work they made on their courses, and undertook a range of initiatives to support and champion local causes. The women took stronger roles in their own families, some reporting that they were now more active participants in their children’s educations. The network of support that developed extended beyond the classroom, with members of the group helping one another through personal difficulties. Often, the women were called upon to act as advocates for other parents in the community.

From the start, as soon as the GAT women were given an opportunity to reflect on what they would like to learn, they made their learning community-focused. They wanted to take their learning out of the classroom and into the community. The desire to use what they were learning to effect change in their community intensified as the group developed, to the point where some of the women trained to be community advocates to take their model of learning into the wider community. Successful learners are an incredibly useful resource, not least because they are very often keen to give something back to their communities, frequently by sharing their experiences and acting as champions for learning. As such, they can be a critical first point of contact for other learners. Often, in deprived areas such as Ely, there is insularity, and resistance to guidance from strangers, however well-intentioned – yet, if it is someone ‘from the street’, people are more likely to listen, to appreciate the difference learning has made to someone else’s life, and to become engaged themselves. The willingness of people in the community to approach GAT members suggests a real though rarely articulated desire for learning and connection.

Satisfying the thirst people in these communities feel for solidarity and connection won’t come from top-down politics – it will only come from the bottom up, and education is crucial in this process. This is increasingly recognised by movements for social change. There has been an explosion of interest in self-directed learning and in the linkage between education and social change. Occupy London’s Tent City University is a great example of a spontaneous educational intervention seen by its organisers as a necessary adjunct to social progress. Elsewhere, the free university movement is looking to revive the extra-mural tradition for a new age. Adult educators need to be at the heart of these developments, keeping social purpose at the core of their approach but also ensuring that the learning on offer is relevant to the lives and concerns of the students, acting as mentor and catalyst for this sort of flourishing of self-organised learning.

This is not to say that adult education alone can tackle the problems facing our most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The issues they face are far too complex for that. But it does have a clear and critical role to play, in partnership with a range of other agencies, including schools, voluntary and community sector organisations, local authorities, health and social care professionals, youth workers, the careers service and other education providers. As the GAT group demonstrates, this role is far from negligible. Adult learning is often the critical intervention in an individual’s life journey. Stories such as this one demonstrate that people are capable of change, that learning is infectious, and that, given the opportunity, learners will work to make their communities better places in which to live. They show that adult education should feature prominently in any genuinely joined-up thinking about social inclusion and community development.

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