Social Exclusion and Higher Education

Who goes into Higher Education is still significantly determined by social and economic factors. This derives from deeply set generation to generation parental circumstances. Specifically for education, one even for HE must go back to the all-time key measure of poverty and exclusion, which is the take up of free school meals.
Under a quarter of people on free school meals gain five or more GCSEs at A* to C, whereas over a half achieve this of all children.
So before we even get to A levels, poverty is excluding children and raises the need for renewed access in later life to training, study and ways into further and possibly Higher Education.
Only about one sixth of young people from unskilled social backgrounds begin Higher Education by the age of 21, compared with eight out of ten coming from a professional background.
Obviously the employment mix of an area is important. Hull and Grimsby are notorious locations for low educational achievement. It comes in part from the predominance of sea based and food processing industries. In the past when fishing and the docks and the supporting industries were a continuous and strong bedrock of employment, education was content to produce people suited for these repetitive semi-skilled and unskilled sources of lifelong employment. In the 1980s and 1990s structural change and high levels of unemployment reinforced lack of educational achievement. Efforts at increasing the diversity of employment have received limited success, and there are still large groups of people especially living on estates locked into low expectations.
Those who did well moved away; those who stayed did so in an environment of low expectations.
As a supply teacher sometimes visiting schools of the socially excluded, I have seen the lack of adequate teacher numbers in these unattractive schools, and lack of motivation and poor behaviour in the students. As a teacher of Key Skills in FE, I have seen the product of schooling where, for the large part, many students still needing English and Mathematics at Year 7 or 8 levels have, in their school days, in fact been learning how to avoid work and how to master distraction. Students in this stream go into low level Travel and Tourism or Business Studies courses - stuck in between education and training - with little chance of activity in these industries as businesses now practise qualification barriers to entry. And so the social exclusion continues. At the same time more confident students already succeeding opt for AS and A2 levels in the well worn tramlines of educational success; the same social and economic backgrounds forming the supply chain into Higher Education.
There are efforts towards social inclusion, for example more widespread basic skills provision and via work and training programmes for gaining skills and experience. Much of this effort does not reach the level of Higher Education. What will affect Higher Education is change such as suggested by the Tomlinson Report, which involves an integrated Diploma of vocational and academic transferable skills. Unfortunately, the very government that has prided itself on efforts towards social inclusion at the lower end of achievement, has pledged to continue with GCSE and A levels and therefore of the British disease of two tier education, where those who can do academic study on the road to Higher Education and those who cannot see a vocational path ahead.
Actually, in recent years, the attempt has been made, through an arguably more Japanese model of education, using frequent exams and quantitative measures of success for individuals and institutions, to include everyone in the academic route. But it has not worked. The 14 to 19 curriculum reforms are a realistic retreat from this, but the solution of integration that Tomlinson represented has probably been lost.
Just to have a sort of government target of 50 per cent of young people into Higher Education will not do without further changes. In any case, the prospect of debt is likely to put many young people off, including those who would receive financial assistance. It might lead to fewer middle class children applying, but it won't increase the working and underclass applications without wider social change.
Measures of social inclusion have to be lifelong and continuous, moving people upwards wherever they are. There is no doubt that Higher Education itself has to become broader and more flexible, picking up these people as they arrive; drawing on transferable skills into itself, so that students can develop from where they are: older students coming in - perhaps at a moment of economic change or need for more knowledge based training - bringing to study more life experience. Their self-discipline can enhance self-study; their experience of decision making can develop into research skills; and they can make comparisons between what they learn and what they already know. Higher Education has to be applied - and inward. The provision of study skills must increase and be a cornerstone of the education experience.
Whilst for the forseeable future younger students will come clutching their A Levels, we should expect that Higher Education will be part of lifelong learning rather than simply the continuing route of the ongoing definition of educational success.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful