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Mind the socio-economic gap

As Sussex students mull over fair trade coffee and participate in heated debates, evaluate radical ideas, moan about reading lists and workloads, at times questioning the likelihood of graduate employment and contesting the marketisation of education, just opposite our university on the other side of the A27, lies an entirely different struggle with education. A school has been forcefully turned into an academy, after struggling with what the government would have us believe were ‘underachieving’ students.

Statistically in Britain, parental wealth is the biggest determinate in how well a young person will perform in education, as highlighted by Teach First, an independent charity set up in 2002 to try and combat educational disadvantage.

This polarity can be seen on our very own doorstep. Ironically sandwiched between two university campuses, Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA) – formally Falmer High School until September last year – was a casualty of the National Challenge programme, a controversial process of naming and shaming failing schools (defined as less than 30 percent of students achieving five A*-Cs in GCSEs). Somewhat regardless of the socio-economic circumstances of their public intake, the majority of schools that fall victim to the National Challenge scheme are in deprived areas.

This, however, is not an isolated example of an educational struggle taking place in a demographically sparse region. A study undertaken by the Sutton Trust in January 2010 noted that 80 percent of disadvantaged young people – those from low Higher Education (HE) participation neighbourhoods – live in the vicinity of a highly-selective university, but only one in 25 of these disadvantaged young people attend such a university, compared to one in four from the highest HE participation neighbourhoods.

The Sussex branch of Aimhigher, a national scheme set up by the former Labour Government to widen participation in Higher Education, works with BACA, and many other National Challenge schools in the Brighton and Hove area.

The scheme allows students to receive help and encouragement with their GCSE studies, enabling them to come into contact with university students, something which some of the pupils would otherwise not be able to do. The majority of the schools that Aimhigher has worked with, in and around Brighton, have seen a rise in GCSE results.

Set up to raise awareness and to highlight and promote university life, Aimhigher is one of the many participation widening schemes to be axed by the coalition government, and will come to an end in July this year. This, coupled with the recent scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) will have a massively detrimental effect on students in such circumstances who may want to go on to Higher Education.

The Sutton Trust (2010) has highlighted that social mobility has been more or less static since 2002-3, after some initial progress in the late 1990s. Any scope for social mobility, largely reliant on access to education, is being crushed under the coalition government’s exacerbation of such a layered society.

This eventuality may be realised in what has been discussed as the creation of a two-tier university system, with ‘lesser’ institutions charging £6,000 annually, and top institutions charging £9,000 annually. Under one proposed scheme, any student eligible for free school meals that is accepted for a place at university, would have one year’s uni fees paid by the state.

Universities that choose to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees will be required to fund a further year’s tuition for these students, and will have to demonstrate involvement in initiatives such as the £150m National Scholarship Programme. However, in early January this year the BBC reported that the first year fee waiver may be dropped. Additionally, the ‘Million+’ group, which represents new universities, has highlighted that the £150m pot would not be enough to fund a year’s tuition for all the students who previously received free school meals last year.

Most of these measures proposed to safeguard access to education for underprivileged students seem unclear, while the doubling of fees is concrete, along with the axing of participation widening schemes. It seems that the Government’s priorities lie with those who already have financial security, not those on the margins.

For students, particularly those from low income backgrounds, the very notion of a £9,000 a year, even if two years were paid, would still leave them with crippling debt. However, this is based on the assumption that students from low-income backgrounds will have the necessary qualifications required, to progress into higher education.

The roots of educational disadvantage seem far deeper than preventative measures at university level will be able to access. This is highlighted by the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI). In the most deprived areas 25.3 percent of pupils achieve 5 A*-C grades including English and Maths compared with 68.4 percent in the least deprived areas, which equates to a 43.1 percent gap between most and least deprived.

Pre-GCSE level, a study conducted by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in March 2009, highlights that the achievement gap starts off relatively small, particularly in very early primary school years and then becomes a much larger problem – the pupils always seem to be playing catch up. This becomes particularly obvious by the time students reach GCSE level.

Does educational disadvantage need to be addressed from the bottom up, as opposed to the top down, in order for underprivileged pupils to be able to reach their full potential? Those on the margins, particularly in under-performing schools have had additional peer pressure to contend with. In a Leitch Review on skills in 2009 UKCES, one in six young people in Britain today leave school unable to read, write or understand basic mathematical principles.

This is an exemplification of the fact that many enter schools with a reading age significantly lower than their peers. Even for those who do struggle against this seemingly institutionalised educational disadvantage and manage to overcome it, what measures are in place to ensure that they can even get into a Higher Education Institution?

This disparity is brought further into the light when considering the divide between private and state education; dependent again, on family income. Figures released by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) in September 2010, showed that close to two-thirds of all GCSE entries from private schools were awarded either an A or an A*, while nationally, 22.6 percent of entries score an A or above.

Nearly a third (29.5 percent) of private schools’ GCSE entries got an A* grade, compared to 7.5 percent nationally. According to an academic study by Cassen and Kingdon, 50 percent of pupils eligible for free school meals at GCSE level, will achieve no passes above a D grade. This age old private/state school bias can be seen even before the cap on tuition fees was raised.

As reported by The Badger in 2009, the Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten, in an interview with the Oxford University newspaper Cherwell, attacked the “angry middle class parents” who have criticised his proposal of a rise in tuition fees commenting that “I think it’s paradoxical at the moment that quite a lot of parents pay a fortune to put their children through private schools and then resent it when they have to pay when universities charge more than £3000 a year.”

Patten here seems to have excluded any students at Oxford University that may have come from the state education system. In fact, in December 2010 The Sutton Trust noted that private school students are 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than students at state schools who qualify for free school meals.

More broadly, of those in state education entitled to free school meals, only 16 percent would progress to university, compared with 96 percent from independent schools (Sutton Trust 2010). So while the government discusses certain ‘measures’ at university level, is it perhaps inconsistent that they are axing so many schemes set up to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The old labour rhetoric of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is now something that seemingly belongs in a golden era compared to what young people are faced with today.

The University of Sussex’s assures prospective students that: “Aimhigher is one part of the widening participation work in which the University is involved. Part of the conditions likely to be set by OFFA under the new fee regime will be to ensure that effective widening-participation activities are undertaken directly by universities.

The University has been performing well against widening-participation benchmarks and intends to ensure that we continue to do so. Over 20% of our current intake is made up of talented students from poorer backgrounds”.

The current coalition government’s educational reforms appear to be making education that much more inaccessible to anyone from an underprivileged background. The ladder to HE, which once observed structures such as EMA has been removed, now replaced with an overwhelming price tag at a detrimental cost to educational progression and social mobility.

When pupils from a North London school sang, ‘We Don’t Need No Education’, on Pink Floyd’s single in 1979, they were wrong; actually, we do.

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