A few more Oxbridge places for disadvantaged children is just tinkering

Lincoln College, University Church of St Mary and Merton College of Oxford University.
Lincoln College, University Church of St Mary and Merton College of Oxford University. Photograph: Alamy

A thinktank’s suggestion for how to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into Oxford and Cambridge – open a new generation of colleges – is the sort of solution that unwittingly tells you much about the problem.

Inequality in Britain’s education system is so entrenched that, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute, the best way for elite institutions to include disadvantaged young people is not to change but to create separate buildings.

It’s little wonder that steps to redress the balance for marginalised pupils are less than useful. We’ve long been told that working-class, disabled and ethnic minority students can excel if they put in enough effort. The fetishisation of grammar schools – just given £50m-worth of new life by the government – is testament to that. Critics of more redistributive measures have long pointed to “minority success stories” to try to prove their point, as if with enough grit, talent and determination, no child need let poverty, race, or disability hold them back.

This individualism has always been simplistic, ignoring the multiple structural barriers that affect all our life chances, but in today’s climate, it looks outright delusional. Take what’s happening to disabled pupils. Cuts to education are happening across the board, but are deepening for children with special educational needs. According to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, there is a £400m gap between what councils in England say they need for this kind of educational provision and what the government is providing. More than 4,000 children with special needs don’t even have a school place (up from 776 in 2010), dumped at home without a right to education.

Even if they are in school, it’s unlikely they’ll be getting the support they need. For example, figures obtained by the National Deaf Children’s Society through freedom of information requests this week reveal that over one-third of councils in England are planning to cut support for deaf children this year. That’s around £4m in itself. The charity says that support for deaf children in schools is now reaching “breaking point” – since 2014, one in 10 specialist teachers for the deaf has been cut, with test results promptly getting worse.

Back in the 1990s, I started secondary school barely a year after Labour gained power. Like most state mainstream schools then, mine was largely inaccessible for pupils like me who used a wheelchair. My class ended up being taught out of only three rooms for the entirety of year 7 while a lift was being installed, with more renovations coming over the years. By the time I was in sixth form, I could get to most parts of the school like anyone else – something often taken for granted but vital for not only a child’s learning, but social development. I dread to think what would have happened with today’s funding cuts.

Disabled students are already at an academic disadvantage. In the first study of its kind in the UK, recent research from the University of Warwick and the London School of Economics found that disabled children are more likely to enter secondary education with lower educational attainment than non-disabled pupils, and are less likely to achieve good grades at GCSE. But as worrying, the minority who do manage to get qualifications are still let down: more than a quarter of disabled young people do achieve five or more A*-C grades, but they are less likely to stay on to take A-levels, and less likely to go on to university, than young people without disabilities.

And this isn’t just about funding. Social factors including low expectations of people with disabilities, and experiences of bullying, were found by the researchers to be key barriers. Prejudice isn’t confined to disability, of course. Last year, the Oxford college St Hilda’s was set to introduce a “class liberation officer” because of abuse towards working-class students, the sort of toxic environment that damages learning and tells a certain group “this is not for you”. Beyond Oxbridge, research from the National Union of Students last month found that low-income students were routinely experiencing harassment or discrimination because of their class, as well as paying a “poverty premium”, often shelling out higher costs than their wealthier peers.

None of this is simple to solve, nor does the problem come down to one or even a handful of factors. Similarly, no matter what the headlines suggest, getting more disadvantaged pupils into Oxbridge is not the holy grail of equality. From early years education all the way to university, a variety of large-scale social and economic measures are needed – as well as smaller practical ones – to begin giving disadvantaged young people a fair shot across the board.

There are many existing schemes that do great work in helping BAME or low-income pupils with A-levels or the university application process. Last year, I was a volunteer mentor to a first-year student at IntoUniversity – a programme created in response to the high university drop-out rate of low-income students; I also took part in one of their careers workshops designed to give primary-school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds inspiration for what they could grow up to be. But any social intervention must come along with cold hard cash from the state, whether it’s for keeping children’s centres open, reinstating teaching assistants to classrooms, or lowering tuition fees for young people daunted by debt.

Tinkering with Oxbridge admissions may make a good story, but let’s be under no illusion. Be it removing a teacher for a deaf child or the longstanding prejudice towards non-white, non-wealthy students, the assault on disadvantaged children is built into the fabric of this country – and is only getting worse. The very children who most need a leg-up are actually being knocked from all sides.

Frances Ryan writes the Guardian’s Hardworking Britain series


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