London Schools level playing field for poorer children
The Coalition Government has trumpeted its determination “to tackle educational inequality.” Given the reaction to the introduction of tuition fees, and previous research done by the Sutton Trust and others, we at Centre for London were keen to explore further what was happening in terms of Londoners accessing higher education. In addition we wanted to see whether the increasing levels of attainment in schools in London translated into greater number of young people, and in particular those from more deprived backgrounds, going on to higher education.
Centre for London’s first research report, ‘London’s Calling’, looks at educational inequality through this prism. We found that London’s record is, in many ways, a proud one. London’s school results, now higher than the national average, have improved dramatically across the social spectrum over the last decade, giving more young people the platform they need to progress. Partly as a result, the ‘poverty penalty’ that young people from lower income areas pay in terms of their chances of getting to university has fallen since the mid 2000s. This means that Londoners who stay on in education past the age of sixteen have a broadly equal chance of going on to higher education whether they are from a poor area or not, even though this is still far from the case for results up to age sixteen.
However, significant challenges remain and this is especially true of entrance to the most prestigious research-intensive universities. Young people from poorer areas are significantly less likely to go to research-intensive universities. In Richmond, the London borough with the lowest concentration of deprivation, 42 per cent of applicants go to research-intensive universities, whereas in Barking and Dagenham, with one of the highest concentrations of poor areas, only 12 per cent do.
But this is not inevitable. In some London schools, young people from poorer areas have at least as good a chance of getting into higher education and in some schools actually stand a better chance. Moreover, young people from poorer areas in a handful of schools do better than their richer peers in getting into research-intensive universities. In short, the evidence suggests that schools and associated services can significantly help level the playing field for children from low-income families when it comes to getting into higher education.
The lessons seem clear. If we can learn from the best schools, we can make a very significant contribution to tackling the disadvantages of birth and opening up higher education to all young Londoners.
What can be learned from those schools and areas doing better? Each school is different, but they share some characteristics. Three stand out. The first is a relentless focus on results and achievement for all young people – a refusal to accept that there is an inevitable link between poverty and poorer exam results. The second is early engagement with families and wider peer networks – young people do not make decisions in isolation but are decisively influenced by their family and friends. The third is close partnership working between schools, colleges, higher education institutions and employers – for example, taster sessions and summer schools can help make higher education a more accessible choice.
In short young people from poorer backgrounds need tailored support and encouragement, if they are going to get into the best universities. Interestingly, our analysis suggests that they are more likely to get this in schools that largely cater to poorer kids, than in schools where middle class children dominate.
Putting these lessons into practice across the board – making them business as usual – won’t be easy, particularly at a time of public spending cuts. Similarly, persuading young people that higher education could be the route for them if neither they nor their families have considered it before won’t be easy in tough economic times with rising tuition fees.
But the evidence suggests that we should not give in to counsels of despair – there is much we can do to widen access to higher education and give today’s young people the best possible opportunities of contributing to London's success.