The Sunday Times today reports proof of what many have long suspected: that if you give bright disadvantaged kids the same support that pupils get at private schools and they beat their privately-educated rivals at top universities.
Get three decent A-levels at a private school and you've a 65 per cent chance of going to a Russell Group elite university. But state school kids helped by the Social Mobility Foundation have a 70 per cent change, according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (pdf).
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The IFS report finds that the effect of being mentored by the SMF is equivalent to having three A* A-levels rather than three A grades, and it makes them up to a quarter more likely to enter one of Britain's top-tier universities. That can change the course of their lives, making them up to 43 per cent more likely to go to a university that top employers visit; that's what makes social mobility happen.
Crucially, the study also shows why Ed Miliband’s policy of cutting tuition fees isn't going to help disadvantaged children get to university. It's not £9,000 fees or want of intelligence that puts poor kids off applying to top universities or going for rarefied jobs. The problems is that, all too often, worse-off kids think education and work opportunities aren't for them. When the SMF changes that, the young people it helps excel.
The Office for Fair Access says that there's £700 million spent a year on access – and it's ‘important to ensure that this money is spent where it can have the most impact’. In other words, money should not – as Ed Miliband deplorably seems to think – be spent on discounts for people who can afford university anyway.
The Coalition’s fees policy has been such a success (with record numbers of poorer kids in England now applying to university) because a third of the fee over £6,000 a year goes towards helping poorer students. Crucially, universities have the freedom to decide how to use this cash –they have found that cutting fees for poorer students doesn’t help much, as they are not really deterred by a graduate tax that would kick in when their salary takes off. So access cash is instead being spent on access programmes – encouraging applicants, visiting schools who don’t send as many kids to university as their results suggest they should.
For anyone who is serious about social mobility in higher education (a category from which we must, alas, exclude Ed Miliband) the IFS study makes a powerful point. If you want to help even things out, then you need to intervene at the secondary school stage. As the Irish found, cutting fees is a simply bung to the middle class: the Cleggs and the Milibands of this world never needed their Oxbridge fees subsidised by the taxpayer in the first place.
The SMF is further evidence of what we need to do to tackle inequality and make Britain fairer. Policymakers from left and right should read the study and take heed.
PS - If any employers are reading this, I'd urge them to get in touch with the SMF if they can take even as few as two interns a year. Recruitment via usual CV process is flawed in this country because talent is not identified or distributed properly: some of our brightest young people are in schools that will never give them the chances they deserve. The SMF is a ladder out - but it needs employers willing to reach out to them and take on a few kids for a few weeks. And if they like them, hire them. The SMF is especially looking for companies from manufacturing and finance.