On Social Mobility Through Fair Access to Higher Education and the Professions

Regular readers will recall that Part 3 of my extended post on ‘The Transatlantic Excellence Gap’ scrutinised the UK’s progress on improving social mobility through fair access to university – and sought to establish the relationship between that policy priority and gifted and talented (G&T) education.

I will not reprise the full details, but the broad thrust of my argument is that there is a significant overlap between these two areas of education policy – they form a Venn Diagram, each with their own separate concerns but also with a substantive element of shared common interest – and that they should be drawn much more closely together, combining the ‘pull’ from universities and the ‘push’ from schools and the post-16 sector, so securing positive outcomes for all three sectors at lower aggregate cost.

The case is strengthened by this last point: by eliminating duplication and securing economies of scale through effective partnership towards a common end, we can help reduce public expenditure and so contribute towards reducing the deficit.

The continued separation of national responsibility for universities (in DBIS) and schools (in DFE) makes this harder to secure in organisational terms but the obstacles should not be insurmountable. Such a relationship could potentially be fostered and secured between the wider range of stakeholders through determined partnership between G&T Voice, the planned umbrella group for G&T education in England and the the Bridge Group, the newly-formed independent policy association promoting social mobility through higher education.That might be something for each to consider as they develop their respective roles and rationales.

The Bridge Group

The Bridge Group does not as yet have an online presence (though members are beginning to tweet under the hashtag #bridgegroup).It has been formed to:

  • influence the development of national policy and strategy relating to social mobility and higher education;
  • promote greater awareness and clearer understanding of the social mobility agenda with the English government, Parliament and other key decision-makers;
  • identify, share and commission research on matters of relevance to the role of higher education in achieving social mobility; and
  • establish and maintain a network through which members can engage with a wider group of stakeholders to share expertise relating to social mobility and higher education.

Membership is open to those with experience and expertise relevant to social mobility policy and practice – and who are committed to the aims above. The Group plans to meet three times a year. Each meeting will have a theme and evidence will be collated to generate a policy paper and recommendations.

The first meeting has just taken place. I will not say too much about it as it is important to respect the unofficial ‘Chatham House’ arrangements we agreed to observe. However, it addressed the issue of how, in the current funding climate, can higher education institutions work with the professions to promote social mobility. We heard and discussed evidence from three experts, put forward our own ideas and heard from Alan Milburn, who has been appointed by the Government as an independent scrutineer of its progress towards securing better social mobility. From September 2011 he will be reporting annually to Parliament.

The discussion at the workshop has prompted this coda to my September post, which will develop and extend the argument about the benefits of connectivity. In particular, I want to set out how the principle could be translated into a transferable, scalable and sustainable policy solution, since that was the challenge presented to us by the Bridge Group, which is quite rightly seeking workable solutions to recommend to Ministers. Their timing is admirable, since the Coalition Government is currently developing its cross-departmental social mobility strategy which it will publish in February 2011.

There were many strong ideas emerging from yesterday’s discussion but many of them were either:

  • significant, but essentially second-order, process-related issues that might influence provision but could not be said to directly increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing into competitive universities and thence into the professions; or
  • partial solutions that might contribute to that end, for example by strengthening the provision of internships in the professions (as recommended by Milburn in his report for the previous Government, which was referenced in my earlier post. I feel confident in mentioning it here because it is already in the public domain.)

One recommendation that fell into the first category was also reprising a Milburn recommendation: the creation of an independent Social Mobility Commission. I can see how that might be counter-cultural when we are experiencing a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. But Milburn confirmed that he has only two Cabinet Office civil servants to help with his gargantuan task.

It is not quite clear how this arrangement can operate for an exercise that is supposed to be fully independent of Government and one process-based recommendation the Bridge Group might offer could be to provide, through its membership, full support to Milburn as he undertakes his role. A de facto commission already exists in the form of the Bridge Group itself.

A holistic, strategic approach (that is also scaleable and sustainable)

But surely the Bridge Group’s search for policy recommendations must be directed, first and foremost, at identifying policy interventions that have the capacity to increase significantly the numbers of gifted but disadvantaged young people – the ‘most able, least likely’ – entering competitive universities and the professions. I will not repeat the data showing which universities and which professions most need attention: they know who they are.

Ideally these must be policy interventions that can bring about a significant, measurable improvement in numbers within the maximum 5-year lifespan of this present Government. Although the politicians refer regularly to the generation-long lead times required for social mobility reform, the fact that Milburn will be reporting annually tells us that they will also need to look for ‘quick wins’.

Michael Gove never tires of telling us that, in 2007, just 45 FSM-eligible young people made it to Oxbridge. To put it bluntly, we must all agree that we cannot afford to allow that scandalous situation to continue. And it should be perfectly possible to design a policy intervention that begins to increase those numbers significantly within the next five years.

Ideally, binding commitments are also needed to continue the effort over perhaps 10 or more comprehensive spending reviews, but as pragmatists we know that may be impossible to secure. In short, such is the short-termism of government, that ‘quick wins’ may be the only wins in town, despite the best intentions of all concerned.

What I am advocating is a ‘flexible framework’ that is capable of imposing some organisation and coherence on an increasingly fragmented policy context, while allowing all players sufficient autonomy to continue to do their own thing, consistent with the wider philosophy espoused by the Coalition Government.

As I noted in my earlier post, Sir Martin Harris, Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), rightly argued in his April 2010 report commissioned by the previous Government that there is a pressing need for strategic co-ordination and sustained intervention, not least across the education sectors involved. If anything the case for such co-ordination has increased as a consequence of the direction of travel pursued by the Coalition Government, since there is a risk that greater institutional autonomy carries with it unhelpful fragmentation of joint endeavour.

So we need to draw together – within a loose federation that does not unduly compromise autonomy -:

  • the different sectors involved – primary and secondary schools, post-16 institutions, universities and the professions – as well as the many national organisations with an interest, many of which were represented at the Bridge Group event;
  • the wide range of existing support and provision, some of it regional, some national, designed to improve fair access to HE and to the professions. This includes holistic programmes supporting target groups of students to enter particular universities and professions, but also initiatives that may be addressing separately different elements of need, such as raising attainment and achievement to the necessary levels, strengthening students’ aspirations and expectations, providing relevant information, advice and guidance and developing parental and family support;
  • the different sources of funding which support this endeavour, which are also becoming more fragmented as a consequence of recent Government decisions. In terms of central Government support they now comprise the Pupil Premium, the ‘targeted support’ expected to take up some of the slack from the abolition of the EMA, and the planned National Scholarship Fund supporting entry to HE that was proposed in the Browne Review. It is also desirable to lever in some matching funds from universities’ own budgets and from the professions.

Some additional notes on funding

Apropos the National Scholarship scheme, we know that all universities that want to charge a higher graduate contribution than the £6,000 threshold will be obliged to participate. DBIS plans to consult on the details but it proposes to attract matched funding from universities against its own investment of £150m.

It anticipates that universities will offer scholarships to targeted students, including relevant recipients of the pupil premium, to ensure that the fees for at least their first year of higher education are fully subsidised. It is also interested in other ideas, such as expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications.

But it is vital that the solution incorporates the post-16 sector and post-16 funding, since the pupil premium is only available to those in schools aged up to 16, and we know that something like half of the target group currently enter different post 16 settings after completing Year 11. Although the Government’s structural reforms might change this somewhat, a substantial proportion of these students will continue to move into the post-16 sector between school and university, and we cannot afford to ignore their needs during that crucial two-year period.

Given that a significant proportion of funding in all three sectors will in future follow the disadvantaged student, it is crucial in my view that any policy intervention is also focused directly on the student, rather than on the institutions that he or she chooses to attend, and draws on these resources. That removes much potential deadweight.

What might this flexible framework look like?

Well, potentially it might look something like this:

Partners Eligible Students: – gifted

– disadvantaged

– age 14-19 or 14-21

Initial needs analysis process

Access to a comprehensive, constantly updated database of external opportunities

Development of a tailored programme linking school/college/HEI internal provision with external opportunities drawn from the database

Tailored programme will address as necessary:

– attainment/achievement

-aspirations and expectations

– information, advice, guidance

– parental and family support

– other customised provision as required

Termly/annual targets and renewed needs analysis

Learner carries portable programme via portfolio between schools, sectors, into university and potentially into profession

Schools Pupil premium
Post-16 institutions Post-16 targeted support
Universities HE National scholarships (and matched university funding)
Professions Contribution from Professions
Potentially managed by the Bridge Group at arm’s length from Government
Robust formative and summative independent evaluation to inform development

A flexible framework of this kind would have the following elements:

First, support for a tightly defined cohort of the ‘most able least likely’ young people. I would suggest that this includes all learners:

  • formally identified as gifted by their schools in Year 9 (and recorded as such on the school census return)
  • who are eligible for FSM, assuming this is the measure adopted to define eligibility for the Pupil Premium
  • who are aiming to enter a competitive university and potentially a professional career.
  • within a specific age range. This should start in Year 9, when pupils are choosing their GCSE options and should extend at least through to the point of entry to HE, and potentially to obtaining their first professional post (assuming these two are sequential). So either a 5-year or a 7-year programme. (This is not to say that there shouldn’t also be wider awareness-raising activity for younger pupils in both primary and secondary schools which could also be made coherent under the same framework,)

I note in passing that there are surprisingly few young people who will meet these criteria – probably no more than 2,000-3,000 per year group.

Second, a process for determining on an ongoing basis the particular needs of each student, so that a tailored programme can be devised that might draw differentially on the different resources available according to the students’ particular needs. (The National Strategies have already refined a potentially suitable needs analysis tool developed by Young Gifted and Talented for the City GATES initiative, but there may well be other similar tools available.)

Third, a comprehensive searchable database of all the different types of external opportunities and provision available to these students – provision which can be combined with the support provided through the learner’s own school, college or university to create a coherent programme, complete with termly review and targets, designed to give these young people the best chance of securing the outcomes they seek in terms of entry to university and a profession.

This would ensure that young people’s options are not constrained by what is on offer in their region and/or from their local university. It would also happily accommodate the several holistic support programmes of this type that already exist in different parts of the country.

Suppliers of such external opportunities could if they wished use the database to identify gaps in the market and establish new provision to fill them.

Fourth, such an entitlement would be passported between school, post-16 settings and HE, provided the same students can be sure of receiving support from each of the three different funding sources. All cost could be met from the pupil premium, post-EMA targeted support, HE scholarship and, potentially, matched funding from HE and the professions. So existing and planned budgets would take the strain.

It would also be possible to use it to introduce radical reform, such as increasing the scope for young disadvantaged learners to undertake elements of degree level study while at school, thus shortening the duration of university-based study and reducing the cost to them of undertaking it. There are several models to build on, in the UK – the OU’s YASS scheme – as well as in the US and Australia.

The Bridge Group and its members could if they wished take responsibility for establishing and co-ordinating this framework at arms-length from Government, though it would need a small topslice from the available funding – or an additional source – to meet the associated costs. It would be highly desirable to include sufficient funding to allow for robust formative and summative evaluation which could be tendered competitively.

An initiative of this kind would be affordable, scalable and sustainable. It would offer the Bridge Group an excellent opportunity to make a real difference to social mobility. And it would be much more likely to increase relatively quickly the flow of bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into our most competitive universities and the most demanding professional careers.



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