An important article by Paul Mason at The Guardian today:

Private schools know how to game elite universities – state-educated kids don’t have this privilege

The argument Mason makes is that school graduates in the UK make uninformed choices about university courses. The problem isn’t necessarily scarce information, quite the contrary:

“Other opinions are available of course – and that’s the problem. This year, a quarter of a million 16-year-olds will make their A-level choices relying on hearsay, myth and information that is outdated or uncheckable. Those choices will shape their options when it comes to university – and the courses they apply for will then shape their chances of getting in.”<\blockquote>

“Why should this matter to the majority of young people, who do not aspire to go to an elite university? And to the rest of society? First, because it is creating needless inequality of opportunity and is just the most obvious example of how poor access to informal knowledge penalises state school kids. Second, because in an economy set to be dominated by information and technology, those 15,000 people who can attempt further maths each year are the equivalent of Aztec gold for the conquistadores. Their intelligence will be the raw material of the third industrial revolution.

There is no reason – other than maintaining privilege – to avoid presenting subject and course choices clearly, logically and transparently. When the system fails bright kids from non-privileged backgrounds, we all lose.”<\blockquote>

Some possible solutions perhaps:

– Better (not necessarily more) online information accessible to all students; a publicly available depository of previous student experiences and statistics on post-A-level trajectories;

– The communication between universities and schools needs to be improved: on the one hand, both universities and schools complain that the other side does not understand their difficulties and poses unreasonable demands; yet on the other hand, both sides complain that the other side is not willing to engage more fully in communication. Where is the truth? Universities have outreach programmes, plenty of information on their websites – but perhaps not the right kind?
The STEM ambassadors initiative is great, but (a) there is a need for ambassadors not only from “STEM” jobs, and also, howeevr successful they are, it’s a charity and they aren’t reaching all the schoolchildren.

– Why is it that universities aren’t more involved in designing, redesigning, updating, A-level syllabuses and monitoring their teaching at 6th form? Is it because university staff are too busy, don’t care, because they have no clue about earlier pedagogy? Or because schools don’t want universities messing into school territory and for example shifting curricula too much towards high-achievers? All viable concerns, but surely a better balance can be found, with more productive involvement and less disruptive meddling of universities into schools! I have heard colleagues involved in admissions sigh that schools just don’t always teach the kids what they really need to know – not just for the entrance exam, but more importantly, for being able to thrive in university. Thinking skills, thinking outside the box, creative and disciplined and active learning… if this really is true, then it’s horrible for both schools and universities in the UK and something has to be done.

– It seems to me that University outreach initiatives such as “Widening Participation” need to be far better developed and embedded into university work. At present, university staff mostly don’t participate – and understandably so, since it is an additional task on top of their already high workloads, and there are already penalties for spending too much time on supervising students and preparing lecture materials if you neglect research and especially publishing. At the same time, there are increasing amounts of administration to be done (as all long-serving academics will confirm, the advent of computers has NOT decreased the amount of paperwork). There is a fundamental imbalance in the way staff are assessed and appraised for job purposes. For example teaching and other “good academic citizenship” behaviour such as administrative work or pastoral care are insufficiently rewarded, whilst research is rewarded – but only through publications in “4 or 5-star journals” (yes, that’s the actual term, I’m not making it up). In this context, when academics are already stretched to do more research, and cope with teaching and admin as much as they can, and most of them routinely work overtime to accomplish their research projects and/or plan lecturers, and/or finish marking – how can we even expect anyone but the young and idealistic academics (the ones most in need of a career boost) to even consider being involved in communication with schools?

– Would it make sense to bring back grammar schools? From the few grammar schools that still exist, it seems that it is a good model… here I must let experts talk, because I know precious little about the UK secondary education system and my impression is largely anecdotal.

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