12/07/2018 16:09 BST | Updated 12/07/2018 16:09 BST

Factoring Background Into University Application Is A Poor Patch On A Big Problem

We cannot claim to be a meritocracy until we address the vast inequalities that children continue to face, long before university

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The university access watchdog decreed this week that students’ backgrounds should be taken into account when awarding places for further education. This is both good news, and abysmally misguided.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that high-scoring students from disadvantaged backgrounds have not only proven their academic aptitude like their more comfortable peers, but they have done so in circumstances that require resilience, determination, and ingenuity. These are all qualities that will stand them in good stead not only for university, but for life, and should be considered within an application. It’s not really so dissimilar from the factoring in of extra curricular accolades – pursuits that also help reveal special qualities.

But there are two kickers. The first is that it discriminates against and de-incentivises students from ‘normal’ backgrounds, in a way that undermines and delegitimises how incredibly hard these young people may also have worked, regardless of their privilege, with universities sometimes taking students with much lesser results above them.

The second, is that the adjustment comes far too late.

University dropout rates provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that significantly more students from disadvantaged backgrounds drop out after the first year of university than others. This may be due in part to the disgraceful scrapping of maintenance grants and the rising costs of attendance. But we must also question how long it is practicable to make extra academic allowances for those unable to make the grade.

The only way to truly even the playing field is to intervene much earlier on.

Because it is not only a question of access to better teaching – although it is that too. (I remember comparing the GCSE revision notes gathered from my very excellent private school, with those of my sister’s slightly less excellent private school, and even then seeing vast difference.) But it is not only this.

It is also a question of providing children who may have chaotic home lives with safe spaces to study. And establishing in those spaces, the adult input that others may take for granted at home.

It is a case too of giving all children extra curricular opportunities, not only to fill in those gaps designed to impress on a CV, but also to enable them to explore their talents, to gain skills, and nurture those qualities so breezily gleaned by, for example, being part of a sports team, or through dedication to a musical instrument.

And it is more. It is a case of giving them access to the ‘entitled’ world so that they may feel equally confident within it, and when talking about it, and in aiming for it. Theatre; museums; even, simply, buildings with imposing architecture, like the hallowed halls of the best universities (and the most elite of schools) – tiny permits of power that those who have these influences do not realise the weight of, but others may feel in their lack.

Yet more than any of these factors, there is the fundamental question of instilling children with the necessary belief in themselves, and the innate expectation of attainment, enabling them to first aim for, and then achieve their goals. Teachers often do a remarkable job in pushing those students in whom they spot potential, but it can sometimes feel impossible to undo attitudes that by the age of university applications are already ingrained.

And that is why we must start young.

Recently we have seen statistics showing a clear attainment gap (on average 4.5months) between the poorest pupils and their peers, already apparent at the age of 5, before they have even started school. And numerous studies, including Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers, illustrate the cumulative effect of early achievement and labelling. Gladwell’s research focuses on Canadian ice hockey players and their relationship with the Relative Age Effect – the idea that those who are older for a year group will do better than their younger peers, not only immediately, but throughout their lives. The rationale is that those who are selected as good athletes early on (because of advanced size, strength, development), gain places on teams and therefore receive additional coaching. Thus, even when their peers eventually catch up in terms of physical maturity, they have missed out on the months and years of extra attention and expertise, not to mention confidence, that the older children were party to. The gap becomes un-closable.

It is much the same with academic opportunity. Making adjustments to university application is like stuffing a leaky roof. It may hold for a while, but ultimately, the hole needs fixing. The whole, does need fixing.

It is no good expecting our institutions of further education to make up for the many years in which our children have been repeatedly failed. In the same week that this expectation is announced, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that in real terms, spending per school-age pupil has been cut 8% since 2010.

We cannot claim to be a meritocracy, or a nation of equal opportunity, until we address the vast inequalities that children continue to face, long before university, and often even before their first day of school.