There is far more to assessing potential than exam results
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.