December 2017

The know zone

  • Cold turkey
    Christmas comes but once a year... which is just as well for one head who dreads the forced jollity of scratchy sweaters, Secret Santa and elves dancing to Slade. More
  • Mind the gap!
    Despite all the talk about improving social mobility, Kevin Gilmartin says that the latest data on sixth form university admissions indicates that social mobility is actually getting worse. More
  • Measuring up
    Suzanne O'Farrell shares some tips on strengthening your assessment system to make it as robust and effective as possible. More
  • Primary assessment: the next instalment
    This term has seen the government respond to two major consultations affecting the primary sector: one on primary assessment, and one on the Rochford Review into assessing children working below the standard of the National Curriculum tests. Julie McCulloch picks out the headlines. More
  • Smooth transition
    How do you help pupils during the transition stage? Is your school or college doing something innovative to make the process run smoothly and to gently ease children and young people in? What approaches do you take? Here, ASCL members share their views... More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
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Despite all the talk about improving social mobility, Kevin Gilmartin says that the latest data on sixth form university admissions indicates that social mobility is actually getting worse.

Mind the gap!

A desire to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society is one that most of us want. Certainly, all our main political parties promote this as a goal, with the government’s mantra of ‘improving social mobility’ seemingly front and centre of its education policies. Additionally, Education Secretary Justine Greening has backed this up in a number of speeches and policy announcements, including at the Sutton Trust Social Mobility Summit in July, when she said, “We absolutely need to fix social mobility, and make sure it happens.”

There are many ways to measure whether social mobility is improving or not but one of the most relevant ways is to compare the number of young people from state schools and colleges going to the most selective* universities with those coming from the independent sector. Sadly, the evidence is not good. The most recent DfE statistics show that the situation has been deteriorating over the last seven years (

So, in simple terms, state students are becoming less likely to get in to the ‘best’ universities. Yes, there is evidence that shows increasing numbers of young people from all backgrounds are actually getting to university, but questions are being increasingly asked as to whether it is worth it, when balancing the levels of student debt with future earnings from ‘lesser’ degrees. In contrast, earnings for graduates from the ‘best’ universities remain consistently high.

So who or what is to blame for this?

Apportioning blame is easy, finding evidence is trickier. However, one constant over the same time period has been the steady reduction in 16–19 funding. The consequences of funding reductions are well-known and can be categorised into two areas: first, those that result in poorer examination outcomes – because of larger class sizes, less curriculum time, less curriculum choice, reduced teaching resources and fewer educational extras such as curriculum trips and speakers and, second, those that result in poorer applicant characteristics – lack of funding for extra-curricular classes, sports, visits, trips and so forth, resulting in students having less ‘social capital’. Both of these sets of factors combine to reduce an applicant’s chances of being accepted at the ‘best’ universities. Indeed, this ‘gap’ is one of the key factors behind ASCL’s prominent 16–19 funding campaign.

Is anything being done to improve the situation?

The only movement on the funding side seems to be on technical education with a promised new £500 million for the government’s flagship T level programme. Clearly this investment, welcome though it is, will not reduce the ‘selective university gap’.

Perhaps, though, the government would argue that it is approaching the problem from another angle – through two initiatives encouraging universities to widen participation opportunities. The first, more established, policy is the university access agreement. This is a document that sets out how a university or college charging the higher tuition fees of £9,250, as opposed to the basic fee of £6,165, intends to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education through outreach work and financial support for disadvantaged students.

The second initiative, launched in January 2017, is the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP). With funding of £60 million per year, the programme aims to use collaborative partnerships of higher-education providers (HEPs), schools, colleges, charities and other local agencies to deliver outreach in a thousand targeted wards where participation in higher education is low. A total of 260 higher-education providers are involved in the programme.

Educationalists working in the HE sector may feel that these initiatives will ‘close the gap’ and perhaps they will. However, those working in 16–19 education would prefer that the sector has sufficient funding to provide a 16–19 experience that promotes the same levels of ambition, outcomes and opportunity in our young people as their counterparts experience in the independent sector. Only then perhaps will we see social mobility start to improve in a meaningful way. Give us the money and we will close the gap.

*The most selective are defined as the top third of HEPs when ranked by mean UCAS tariff score from the top three A level grades of entrants.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist