Asking the right questions about social mobility and education

Does the name Peter Aldous mean anything to you?

Amongst other things Peter is a Chartered Surveyor and an Ipswich Town supporter. Peter is also the MP for Waveney in Suffolk, and I think he deserves a pat on the back. Let me explain why.

2014 opened with a strange and upsetting rumour: the government would be cutting the Student Opportunity Fund, which is designed to help universities widen access to students from less advantaged areas and provide financial support for them.

This was strange because the coalition has repeatedly and emphatically stated its commitment to improving social mobility; it was upsetting because so much good work with the most disadvantaged students depends upon this funding.

Last week we discovered, to our relief, that government policymakers had changed their minds: the Fund will not be cut, and David Willetts has urged universities to continue working hard to increase the number of poorer students getting to university. Which is all good.

But what brought about this change of heart?

On 7th January 2014, just as David Willetts was considering the fate of the Student Opportunity Fund, Peter Aldous asked an apparently innocuous question in the House of Commons: “how many pupils entitled to free school meals went to (a) Russell Group Universities and (b) the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge in (i) 2010, (ii) 2011, (iii) 2012 and (iv) 2013?”

In response, David Willetts provided the following table:

fsm table

(Figures after 2011 are not yet available)

This means that on average Russell Group universities admitted just 64 students who had received free school meals. This is a shocking statistic and a reminder of the lamentable state of social mobility in the UK.

But this may only be one dimension of the full story. I suspect that there are some significant regional variations, meaning that the chances of young people in some parts of England are even worse than the national statistics would suggest.

According to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, across the country an average of 20% of young people from Free School Meals (FSM) backgrounds progressed to university in 2010-11. But in Barnsley and Doncaster only 9% of FSM pupils went to university. In Southampton the figure is 7%. In Thurrock the proportion is just 5%.

The next question that Peter Aldous needs to ask is about the geographical distribution of the 1,540 FSM pupils who went to Russell Group universities in 2010-11. I suspect that in some areas in England the poorest young people stand no statistical hope whatsoever of making it to a top university.

At IntoUniversity we are working to build resources to enable us to reach out to these students and give them an even chance of a university education. IntoUniversity currently operates out of fifteen centres, eleven in London, three in Nottingham and one in Bristol, with plans to expand to other areas of the country to offer disadvantaged young people the support that many middle-class children receive as a matter of course.

IntoUniversity’s core focus is on social mobility through education. It is dedicated to raising the aspirations and improving the life chances of those young people most vulnerable to educational failure. IntoUniversity has been part of the Impetus-PEF portfolio since 2007. Over the course of its investment, Impetus-PEF has supported the charity in its growth from operating solely in London to operating in multiple cities across the UK. 

Impetus − The Private Equity Foundation
About The Author
Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Director of Development and co-founder of IntoUniversity

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