Last week David Willetts, the universities minister, proposed a scheme whereby poorer students who did well in their GCSEs would receive letters of congratulation from the government. The letters would encourage these students to consider attending university – despite government proposals to increase the availability and uptake of apprenticeships.
Many commentators have observed that the proposals seem at best an impractical use of resources and at worst deeply patronising. The complications of implementing the policy seem to make it a difficult one advocate; for instance, is a child defined as poor if they attend a poor school or come from a poor family? The fairest way would surely be to use the latter measurement and yet this does not sit well with the stringent data protection laws currently in place.
The emotional affect of this proposal also seems complex and potentially damaging. From what I remember, the end of your GCSE period is one of the times in your life when you least want to be singled out. It is both embarrassing and patronising for your grades to be highlighted in this way. It reeks of the suggestion that your grades are almost a surprise, given your economic background, something that at 15 or 16 you’re probably trying not to be too concerned or affected by. Furthermore, it undermines the efforts of those students who may get average grades but have worked to the best of their personal abilities to get them.
However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake here which has been missed in some of the outraged responses to the perceived affect of such a letter; a letter received after your GCSEs discussing your options could well be too late to have the desired affect. In my hometown your sixth form options were decided months before you took your GCSEs and, especially for a high performing student, it was nigh on impossible to transfer colleges once this process had closed.
Even more inflexible than this are your A Level options. There are only so many GCSEs one student can take, particularly one at an underfunded school with potentially disruptive students. Once these have been decided both your A Level and some university choices will be invariably limited. One friend of mine, who had always performed to a high level in the sciences, was recommended double sciences by her school, presumably due to their own targets. This limited both her university and sixth form choices, as she chose to pursue a science throughout her academic career, due primarily to these being her best subjects.
If Willetts really wants to have an affect on the uptake of higher education he needs to communicate with students before they sit, or even select, their GCSEs. The issue at hand here is not the discouragement of poorer students; it is the lack of education given to students in general. The result of this is the widely reported disparity in outcome for wealthier and poorer students, with the former usually assuming university attendance to be their safest option and the latter leaving education altogether. To get the right students to university and more young people gaining much needed apprentice skills, future options must be discussed and explained before 13-14 year olds are asked to make their first academic choices.
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