There is far more to as­sess­ing po­ten­tial than exam re­sults

The Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

I was vis­it­ing my alma mater ear­lier this week, and while there were, as al­ways, young men wear­ing red cor­duroys, there were also stu­dents with cheap shoes and or­di­nary ac­cents. This was the same day that it was an­nounced that all our 19 uni­ver­si­ties have signed up to a Gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive to widen ac­cess to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion by 2019. Bells should have been ring­ing, mor­tar boards hurled into the air and a pa­rade trum­peted down the cob­bled streets be­cause, small step though this might seem, his­tory is be­ing made.

It is hard to ex­ag­ger­ate its sig­nif­i­cance. By im­ple­ment­ing a new ap­pli­ca­tion process, Ni­cola Stur­geon hopes to meet her tar­get of one-fifth of univer­sity stu­dents com­ing from so­ci­ety’s low­est so­cio-eco­nomic fifth by 2030. To en­able this, entrance qual­i­fi­ca­tions for sub­jects will now be stretched, cre­at­ing a two-tier sys­tem that of­fers those from least the af­flu­ent or most chal­leng­ing back­grounds the op­por­tu­nity to study.

Pre­dictably, some of the wor­ried mid­dle-class have re­acted with con­cern. How aw­ful if, in order to meet a pre­or­dained fig­ure, bet­ter-off young­sters with higher grades were sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing and do-good­ery. I see it dif­fer­ently. How amaz­ing that mea­sures are be­ing taken to di­min­ish the en­trenched and self­per­pet­u­at­ing spi­ral of priv­i­lege that the well-heeled and more for­tu­nate have en­joyed, and felt en­ti­tled to. Un­til the 1940s, peo­ple from fam­i­lies like mine would rarely have had a hope of stay­ing at school be­yond 14 let alone tak­ing a de­gree. Today that ed­u­ca­tional revo­lu­tion seems like an­cient his­tory, yet there is much fur­ther to go.

Re­mov­ing the fi­nal hur­dle to real equal­ity is long over­due. Those who baulk at the two-tier sys­tem, who sus­pect that lower-grade en­trants are be­ing given a free pass or special rights, have no con­cep­tion of the con­di­tions un­der which some school stu­dents work. The ob­sta­cles range from not hav­ing peace or space in which to do their home­work, to be­ing a carer for a par­ent, or be­ing them­selves taken into care. In be­tween are all shades of dif­fi­culty. The least dra­matic, and most preva­lent, is poverty. When mak­ing ends meet has to be a pri­or­ity in order to sur­vive, chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion in­evitably suf­fers.

In those con­di­tions, the fu­ture seems very far off, and get­ting through the week, let alone the aca­demic term, is de­mand­ing enough. Lit­tle won­der that pupils from such back­grounds lack the con­fi­dence and am­bi­tion that more af­flu­ent house­holds in­stil in their chil­dren from nurs­ery. Those of us, like me, brought up in a good and well-ed­u­cated home, should ac­knowl­edge the myr­iad ways in which we were helped to flour­ish. De­cent or top grades achieved un­der these con­di­tions are nei­ther re­mark­able nor a cause for boast­ing. It is like plant­ing tomato seeds in a green­house, and tend­ing them daily. There would be some­thing se­ri­ously wrong if they did not nat­u­rally and al­most ef­fort­lessly grow and blos­som.

Yet our cul­ture is fix­ated on hi­er­ar­chy and la­bels. We love the cer­tainty of the pi­geon­hole, the sep­a­ra­tion of sheep and goats, the able and the also-rans. The tra­di­tional fo­cus on grades to the ex­clu­sion of other qual­i­ties or in­di­ca­tors is symp­to­matic of a coun­try that, since the days of em­pire, has be­lieved that high-fliers have ex­cep­tional God-given gifts. They make their own luck. The as­sump­tion was that, as well as brains, ap­pli­ca­tion and char­ac­ter are es­sen­tial to suc­ceed. Thus, those who do not meet the stan­dard are in­ad­e­quate, or lazy, or thick.

Per­son­al­ity and re­solve are, of course, es­sen­tial to do­ing well. But a C grade for some pupils rep­re­sents a heroic achieve­ment where an A for an­other is no big deal. This two-tier ad­mis­sion pro­gramme asks us in­stead to look deeper, and think harder. Teach­ers have al­ways known, and the Gov­ern­ment has come to see, that there is far more to as­sess­ing in­tel­lec­tual po­ten­tial than one-di­men­sional re­sults.

You can safely as­sume that as the bright ones from the least aus­pi­cious be­gin­nings find their place and ful­fill their la­tent prom­ise, the coun­try will change. Slowly, the bal­ance of power will tilt, ad­just­ing the dis­tor­tion of un­earned so­cial and eco­nomic sta­tus that has for too long dom­i­nated and dic­tated the ways things are done. For this bold, far-sighted and hu­mane ini­tia­tive, I award the Gov­ern­ment an A1 mark for ef­fort and imag­i­na­tion.

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