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Letters of GCSE Praise for Poorer students Are Too Little, Too Late

01/05/2013 11:56 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST

Last week David Willetts, the universities minister, proposed a scheme where poorer students who did well in their GCSEs would receive letters of congratulation from the government. The letters would encourage these students to consider attending university - despite government proposals to increase the availability and uptake of apprenticeships.

Many commentators have observed that the proposals seem at best an impractical use of resources and at worst deeply patronising. The complications of implementing the policy seem to make it a difficult one to advocate; is a child defined as poor if they attend a poor school or come from a poor family? The fairest way would surely be to use the latter measurement and yet this does not sit well with the stringent data protection laws currently in place.

The scheme also appears to provide potential embarrassment for those concerned. The end of your GCSE period is one of the times in your life when you least want to be singled out. It is both humiliating and patronising for your grades to be highlighted in this way. It reeks of the suggestion that your grades are almost a surprise, given your economic background, something that at 15 or 16 you're probably trying not to be too concerned or affected by. In fact, you're probably making every attempt to ignore it altogether. Furthermore, it undermines the efforts of those students who may come out with average grades but have worked as hard as possible to get them.

However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake here that has been missed in some of the outraged responses to the suggestion; a letter received after your GCSEs discussing your options comes far too late to have the desired affect. In my hometown your sixth form options were decided months before you took your GCSEs and, especially for a high performing student, it was nigh on impossible to transfer colleges once this process had closed. In that system, someone who has never considered university may attend a college without the capacity to assist them with entry to the top universities, the same ones that are so plagued by inequality of access.

Even more inflexible than this are your A Level/IB/diploma/further qualification options. There are only so many GCSEs one student can take, particularly one at an underfunded school with potentially disruptive students. Once these have been decided both your college subject, and some university, choices will be invariably limited. One friend, who had always performed to a high level in the sciences, was recommended double sciences by her school, seemingly due to their own targets. This limited both her university and sixth form choices, as she chose to pursue a science throughout her academic career. A logical decision, I'd say, since these were both her best and preferred subjects. Your choice of GCSE subjects could place you at a disadvantage in the university application system from the offset.

If Willetts really wants to have an affect on the uptake of higher education he needs to communicate with students before they sit, or even select, their GCSEs. The issue at hand here is not the discouragement of poorer students; it is the lack of options education given to students in general. Students can't access the further education they would like to if they don't understand the mechanics of how to get there. The consequence of the current system is the widely reported disparity in outcome for wealthier and poorer students, with the former usually assuming university attendance to be their safest option and the latter leaving education altogether. Both trends stem, to an extent, from the stigma surrounding different further education - or work - choices; my sister has battled the social assumption that someone from a privileged background must go to university since she left college to enter work, despite her extensive successes.

To get the right students to university and more young people gaining much needed apprentice skills, future options must be discussed and explained before 13-14 year olds are asked to make academic choices with serious and permanent implications. Putting apprenticeships, university places and professional career choices into the same conversation would go some way to removing the stigma associated with each choice. More to the point, all students deserve to follow the path in life most suited to them, regardless of ability. To only reward high achieving pupils with extra information on their prospects is both unproductive and unfair.