When I was teaching I romanticized the struggle of the bright but poor child. A lot of teachers do the same, perhaps because in students who are stopped from excelling academically purely by their background, the injustice of wasted potential is so clear. However after five years of teaching, my most nagging thoughts are for the students who were neither particularly bright nor motivated – the ones who might have scraped 5 A*s to C at GCSE, but didn’t do much better or much worse. Many of them stayed on for 6th Form and generally performed badly at that level, then didn’t progress to university. Many left school after their GCSEs. The thoughts I’m left with are: what happened to these middle-of-the-road students? What are they doing now?
No one at my old school knows, because historically schools haven’t been very good at recording destination data. However at a national level we do know that in the UK 21% of people aged 16-24 are unemployed, and I would hazard a guess that unemployment in the disadvantaged group I’m thinking about is far higher.
One reaction to academic underperformance by students from less privileged backgrounds is to simply not accept it. The argument goes something like: 96% of students from independent schools go to university, only about 39% of state school students do the same, so let’s close the gap. King Solomon Academy is an example of a school that adheres to this view - the school’s walls are covered in slogans like ‘Climbing the mountain to university’. At the moment their oldest year group is Year 11; in two and a half years I expect that their success in helping disadvantaged students access university places, and in particular top university places, will be so extraordinary as to be national and even international news.
I hugely admire the frankly super human efforts of the staff at King Solomon Academy. However I don’t think that the university-at-all-costs approach is the only valid one. Germany’s education system is well-known for putting greater value on non-academic progression routes, and it seems that this attitude has helped to power the country’s impressive economy. Perhaps our obsession with matching independent schools’ success in accessing university places is misplaced. Are all these university students really doing what’s right for them? Maybe they could have made other, better choices.
Going back to my preoccupation with the story of the bright but poor child – here’s a great example. Back in 2005 I thought Michael was the brightest student in his year group by a fair distance. I taught him when he was 12 and despite a complicated home life he shone. I thought that over the years I’d help him win a place to study History at Oxford. Then after GCSEs he left school to start a carpentry apprenticeship. I used to tell Michael’s story to friends not in teaching and we’d all agree it was terribly sad. Well, I ran into Michael at a bus stop the other day and it turns out he now employs 4 people in his growing renovation business. Despite being ten years younger than them, I reckon he’s doing a lot better in life than several people I know who read History at Oxford.
The fact is that when I was teaching Michael I didn’t know anything about progression routes through education and into employment apart from ‘Route 1’: A-levels > university > graduate employment programme. And most teachers, because they are all graduates, are the same.
This is ridiculous because in fact, as Michael showed me, there are excellent ‘other’ post 16 education options. These include vocational courses at Further Education colleges and apprenticeships. Even those still obsessed by the romance of the bright but poor need not be put off – Higher Apprenticeships – such as PwC’s Professional Services apprenticeship – can lead to degree level qualifications, and you will soon be able to become a qualified solicitor through an apprenticeship.
Michael has always been particularly clever and strong-willed, so he was able to cut his own path. The vast majority of students are not like him. I’m worried that our profession’s obsession with the poor but bright child, coupled with teachers’ lack of expertise in non-academic progression routes, means that we are not supporting the middle-majority to make the right choices.
What should we do?
We should remember that the ignored majority are both more numerous and more needful of guidance than the poor but bright.
We should also be aware that teachers are more comfortable with the university application process because they’ve been through it themselves, and we should therefore make it our duty to familiarize ourselves with the processes for non-university pathways – especially the National Apprenticeships Service (the portal for apprenticeships) and the National Careers Service (the portal for courses at Further Education colleges).
Finally, we should make sure that students choosing university as their post-16 option are making an active rather than a passive choice. Running the university choosing tool Unifrog has taught me that part of its role is to help students use data intelligently to actively not choose university, as well as to actively choose it.
Unifrog makes it easy for students to choose the best universities for them, and for teachers to track students' progress. For a free trial, please click here.
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