Patten versus Denham

Universities Minister John Denham has heaped criticism on Chris Patten after his speech at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference last week, for suggesting that universities could not “make up for the deficiencies of secondary education”:
It is my belief that there is now widespread acceptance across our universities that the current system does not yet capture all the talent that exists in young people across the country, which is why it is all the more disappointing to hear the comments of critics like Chris Patten who have an outmoded view of the central issues in widening participation.
For Denham, "widening participation" seems to be the sole function of elite institutions. He cannot, being a good Marxist, bear the idea that Oxford will not admit the badly educated. Chris Patten, one-time Education Minister and current Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, had complained that:
However hard we try to widen participation at Oxbridge, and I am sure you could say the same at many other universities, there is no chance whatsoever of meeting the socio-economic targets set by agents of government so long as the proportion of students getting A grades in traditional academic A-level subjects at private and maintained schools stays the same. It is as simple as that.
It is as simple as that.

As I wrote in a previous post, poorly qualified students do not do well at university. Trying to identify some degree of intrinsic worth or talent in a student at school and then transplanting them to a Russel Group university will not work: an undeveloped talent is not a sufficient preparation for advanced study. A clutch of grade As at A level is not a guarantee either, but like it or not, if a student cannot get high grades at school, for whatever reason, they will start university a long way behind their classmates.

Can universities be expected to make up in three or four years the educational scars left by thirteen years in an inner-city sink school? Denham thinks so, saying that "Education is the most powerful tool we have in achieving social justice." If he means that accepting weak candidates onto challenging courses is an indicator that social justice has been achieved, then he is seriously deluded. It is not just to set up these poor people for such a fall, as fall they will.

Social justice should not be treated as simply another high-stakes key target that can be improved by crudely manipulating the indicator variable (percentage of sink estate kids at Oxford) directly by coercing universities. The indicator is only useful if it improves indirectly, as a result of better schooling, and that will need a whole slew of 'indicators' to be manipulated: financial poverty of families; poverty of ambition in much of the working-class culture; the flight of good teachers to 'good' schools; the lack of specialist teachers; and many others.

Of course, this is a difficult task. So difficult that no country has ever solved the problem. Bashing 'posh' universities in the press is much easier.

To give the government some credit, though, Denham was making his comments about Lord Patten at a conference for the AimHigher project, which is a major scheme to tackle poverty of ambition by supporting and encouraging children who come from families with no history of Higher Education to consider university and professional careers. My own college has received money to pay for such a scheme from this project and is currently identifying and briefing suitable students and their parents.

I know this, not because of the high quality of internal staff communication, but because several students disappeared from my classroom suddenly, missing two hours of their physics lesson. Apparently, they had been instructed to skip their lessons to attend the compulsory AimHigher meeting.

Hasn't anyone learned?

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