Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton

Lee Elliot Major asks whether the acting profession could do more to develop talent from all backgrounds

Daniel Day-Lewis’s unprecedented third Oscar for Best Actor topped a successful night for Brits at the 85th Academy Awards this week. Day-Lewis famously holds dual British and Irish citizenship. But his background is that of the quintessential English actor.

Day-Lewis attended two prestigious private schools, Sevenoaks and Bedales, before going on to study at theatre school. These beginnings may contrast starkly with those of the self educated Abraham Lincoln, the American President he portrayed so brilliantly. But Day-Lewis is the latest in a long line of privately educated Englishmen and women to conquer Hollywood. Damian Lewis and Hugh Laurie, both old Etonians, are recent Golden globe winners, also acclaimed for their glittering success on the other side of the Pond.

And so they should be. But it is little wonder that many Americans are shocked to find that private schools make up only 7% of schools in England. Believe it or not, the vast majority of us are not educated in Hogwarts style boarding schools!

That so few achieve so much prompts an uncomfortable question this side of the Atlantic: are we doing enough in Britain to develop the artistic talents of children unlucky enough to come from the 93% of the population unable to access a privileged fee-paying education?

I live in North London which often feels like the very epicentre of the Luvvie classes. A casting director recently bemoaned to me that the talent pool of young aspiring thespians has become noticeably posher. She put this down to a range of factors: from increasing financial hardship to plain nepotism in the industry.

This trend could well be true. Recent research from the Sutton Trust into the country’s professional elites found that 44% of leading actors attended private schools. But this figure rose to 49% for those aged 45 and under.

The conversation reminded me of the report on the education backgrounds of news journalists I wrote for the Sutton Trust a few years back. This warned that there was an increasing bias in the media industry that favoured journalists from privileged backgrounds. There were a number of reasons for this: low pay and insecurity at junior levels; the high costs of living in London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry amid a largely informal but highly competitive recruitment process; and finally the stronger skills and attributes attributed at an earlier age by those from private schools.

In a world of increasing inequalities – both in and outside school, the opportunity gap between the haves and have nots is ever widening.

As with journalism, the acting profession appears to be the perfect breeding ground for social immobility. Reforms under Labour to provide financial support for drama students were welcome. But perhaps something also needs to be done now to help nurture and support talent in state schools and young actors during their early career.

We may celebrate Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton and other leading private schools. But it is high time the industry gave something back to those talents less fortunate. That is something President Lincoln would surely have appreciated.

Increasing social mobility in UK financial services

Lee Elliott Major on why the City needs to improve social mobility for economic as well as social reasons.

Thomas Wood is what the Sutton Trust is all about. A bright state school boy whose parents had never experienced higher education, he wasn’t sure whether study, let alone at a prestigious university, was for him. One week at the Sutton Trust summer school changed all that. Like many of the pupils with modest family backgrounds taking part, this week-long taster of university transformed Thomas’s life. He went on to gain a place at Nottingham University. During his degree he got an internship at a major bank. Now Thomas is an analyst at Citigroup, leading a successful career in the City.

Sadly, Thomas’s story of upward mobility remains the exception not the rule. Britain’s low social mobility, and the shocking waste of talent that goes with it, is arguably the biggest social challenge of our times. No more is this true than in the financial services sector. Research from the Sutton Trust into the country’s professional elites found that nearly six in ten (57%) of leading people in financial services attended private schools – which educate just 7% of pupils. Less than one in ten had attended a state comprehensive school. The remainder were educated at grammar or former direct grant schools.

It’s figures like these that motivate the work of the Sutton Trust. Founded and led by the successful philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, the Trust’s aim is simple: to improve social mobility through education. The Trust is expanding its programmes, working with a range of partners, to provide life-transforming opportunities for talented pupils from low and middle income homes. The Trust’s summer schools are now the largest national access scheme for universities – benefiting nearly 2000 students this year at nine prestigious universities.

The Trust’s Pathways to Law programme, supported by the Legal Education Foundation and leading law firms, meanwhile supports state school pupils thinking about a career in law. It works with students over a number of years: from sixth form onwards, crucially enabling students to get work experience in law firms.

Could a similar programme be established to attract such students into the City? This is the question driving work by Boston Consulting Group for the Trust. Their study of the financial services sector has uncovered many insights. While there are laudable schemes across a diverse sector, support for non-privileged students can be fragmented, with little evaluation of its impact. In major banks, efforts to improve social mobility are not linked to their actual recruitment. The full business case for social mobility has not been made.

The Trust will be sharing its findings with leading organisations across the sector. But the challenge for us is already clear: how can the City work effectively to ensure that it benefits from more talented youngsters like Thomas Wood in the future?

This post first appeared on TheCityUK blog

Two countries united by a common access problem

James Turner considers access issues State-side

I had some respite from the London cold last week, when I was invited to speak at a British Council event at the University of California, Los Angeles, on widening access to university.

It was a fascinating session and underlined that – while our weather may be quite different – our two countries are facing similar issues when it comes to educational inequalities.

Even in setting the scene, the contextual factors at play are strikingly resonant – low levels of social mobility compared to many other developed nations; increasing inequality leading to a widening gap between rich and poor; and marked segregation in the school system, which makes the pre-college playing field anything but level.

The debates on either side of the Atlantic have been brought further into line because many in the US now see class and income, rather than ethnicity, as the defining obstacle to wider university access.  It is poverty more than colour that dictates chances of progression.

And both countries face the conundrum that, between them, they have the majority of the top-ranked universities in the world, but opportunities to study at these institutions are far from equitably spread, with those from better-off homes dominating admissions.

As in the UK, one of the major reasons underlying this trend in America is the lower levels of achievement of poorer students, allied to issues around aspirations and the quality of advice and support they receive.  Such is the complexity and breadth of the US higher education scene, that college counselling is critical – but, as here, it is often worst where it is needed most, in those communities with little experience of further study and no networks on which to draw.   This is exacerbated by the fact that school resources depend on parental income, with school districts funded through local taxation.

One difference though – at least for the time being – was that affordability and credit constraints have played a much larger part in the US picture.

While debt aversion has always been a factor in the debate, research from OFFA a couple of years ago showed that bursaries did not make a difference to English students’ decision making.  In other words, it wasn’t the cash that mattered, which is why the Trust has long-argued for more investment in outreach work in schools.  Whether this holds true under the new fees regime, of course, remains to be seen.

Participation rates in the US are higher than here, markedly so in fact, but the need for college graduates remains strong – in fact, the US government forecasts a demand, particularly in STEM areas, that is not being met by current supply. That should give heart to those in the UK pushing for more high quality higher education opportunities.

The final session of the conference looked at new digital platforms – including the possibility that College education could be made free, or at much lower cost, through the web.  Bandwith, content and hardware have converged, meaning that now could be the time that this type of provision really takes off.

If that happens, and the currency of the courses remains high, then the opportunity to share in the bounty of university could extend well beyond those who physically enter the lecture halls of our great universities.

So there were reasons for optimism – but it was an overall sobering prognosis, despite the LA sunshine. Such is the arms race of social mobility – and the understandable willingness of affluent parents to spend money to give their children a competitive advantage – that closing the university access gap seems like a very high mountain to climb indeed.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try —  and our work over the last fifteen years has shown that progress can be made. Every great journey starts in the foothills.

Can we reach consensus on secondary reform?

Conor Ryan considers the implications of last week’s announcements by Michael Gove.

Last Thursday’s unexpected U-turn by Education Secretary Michael Gove over his plans to replace GCSEs was presented by some as a sign that the most sure-footed cabinet minister in the coalition had come unstuck.

Yet a closer look at what actually happened suggests that though his plans may not have had the full rebranding he envisaged, they remain rather more intact than commentators have suggested.

While reformed GCSEs will no longer be known as EBCs, other changes announced last week could still have a profound effect on schools, what they teach and how they are assessed.

Alongside the confessional appearance in the Commons, Gove also unveiled his plans for the national curriculum, a radical change in the key league table measure for GCSEs and confirmed his plans for those exams to remain linear and become more demanding.

The draft national curriculum makes little change to range of subjects that students take – computing replaces ICT, but PSHE, citizenship and PE remain statutory requirements, even if their programmes of study are sharper and less prescriptive.

The level of prescription in subjects like history – which is now wholly chronological – and English which has a level of detail on grammar unseen since the literacy hour – stands in sharp contrast to the notion that schools would be increasingly free to decide for themselves what they would do. Teachers are freer to decide how to teach, but are much more circumscribed in what they must teach, at least until the age of 14 (and, at least for core subjects, to 16).

In that context, it was particularly surprising that Gove dropped plans to move towards a single exam board for each GCSE syllabus. He may have done so on the advice of Ofqual and worries about European competition law, but it was a reform that had wide support outside the exam boards and should be revisited.

The context for the new Gove curriculum was set out in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last Tuesday, where his belief that a core body of knowledge should lie at the heart of schools was set out more sharply than ever before, with the Conservative Secretary of State choosing the Italian Marxist father of Euro-Communism, Antonio Gramsci as his chief witness, alongside more familiar contemporary advocates such as the American academic E.D. Hirsch.

At the same time, Gove is proposing a number of changes to the league tables, which could have even more wide-ranging impacts on what schools teach.

Instead of measuring schools primarily on five good GCSEs – at C grade or above – including English and Maths, they will be measured on English and Maths grade Cs and on an average point score based on a student’s best eight subjects.

What might all this mean for social mobility and for disadvantaged students? On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for bringing greater clarity to the body of knowledge that children should learn. The curriculum had, arguably, lost the clarity it had in 2000 and earlier versions, and many will welcome this. It is also right to encourage greater breadth – and that would be welcome at A-level as well as GCSE, as Peter Lampl has argued recently.

The challenge – and test – for the new curriculum will be the extent to which it is adopted by academies, the 50 per cent of secondary schools that are free to choose most of their own curriculum, and the extent to which today’s parents expect them to adopt it.

There is a perfectly good argument – as Gove made in his SMF speech – that children need a body of knowledge if they are to benefit fully from acquiring the research and study skills that most teachers – and the evidence from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit – suggest can play a big role in boosting attainment.   A false dichotomy has been created between knowledge and skills, and both need to be seen as an important part of children’s educational development.

Of course, for students who go to university, it is right that they should be encouraged to take a strong suite of academic subjects, and it is to be hoped that the new GCSEs have the rigour to bring an end to the soul-destroying annual ritual of criticising the achievements of young people at the moment when they learn how well they have done in their exams.

Yet a big gap in the Government’s thinking lies in what happens after the age of 14 to those for whom a more vocational or technical education would be more motivating. EBCs may be gone but the EBacc remains, and will lie at the heart of the 8-GCSE measure in the new league tables. For students taking 8 GCSEs, it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to take five EBacc subjects, and they now have a chance to have achievements in other subjects like art, technology and religious education recognised. This has pleased those lobbying for such recognition.

Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges start students on technical and vocational pathways from age 14. Further education colleges will be able to recruit from that age. Yet because of the undoubted abuses of vocational equivalences in the past, all technical and vocational qualifications, regardless of depth and intensity, have equal weight in the league tables.

The Government still has to find a satisfactory way of recognising the achievements of those who take a more technical curriculum, and it should use the reformed league tables to do so. To argue this point is to be neither Luddite nor defeatist, but it is to recognise that for some students – a minority maybe but at all ability levels – an academic curriculum post-14 will not enable them to fulfil their potential.

There is a real chance to develop a lasting consensus on education, one that outlives changes in Government, and one that caters for the needs of every child at different phases of their education.  Last week’s suite of announcements could herald a different approach. For that to happen, the consultations on the curriculum and league tables need to be as open to reasonable change as that on GCSE reform turned out to have been.

We need the best postgrads, not just the richest

Sir Peter Lampl on a worrying divide in postgraduate studies

Today’s new Sutton Trust report on the Postgraduate Premium highlights what is becoming a new frontier in the battle to improve social mobility.

In the 15 years since I established the Sutton Trust, we have started to make inroads into the state/private school balance at Oxford and Cambridge, and there have been improvements in the numbers of poorer students going to university relative to their richer peers.

But the new report shows that as more young people from less privileged homes are going to university – and we have yet to see the full impact of undergraduate fees particularly on the numbers from middle income homes – the goalposts have been shifting.

Where just 4% or 600,000 people in the workforce had postgraduate degrees 16 years ago, 11% or over 2 million have such qualifications today. Of course, there are real economic benefits in having a better educated workforce in today’s global economy. And last year’s report from the Higher Education Commission highlighted a growing demand for expertise in science, technology, engineering, maths and design.

Yet, at below 10%, the UK has one of the lowest progression rates to Master’s studies of any European country, a rate matching Andorra and Kazakhstan, according to the 2012 Bologna Process Implementation Report. [from HE Commission report, p31]

So we need more postgraduates. A better educated workforce should be good for Britain. Brainpower is what adds value in today’s economy. But it is essential that this should not come at the expense of widening inequalities of access to these professions.

Yet, the truth is that postgraduate study is becoming increasingly the preserve of the better off student, both from home and abroad.

There has been a big rise in postgraduate enrolments over the last decade. There are now over 650,000 postgraduate students at our universities. But HEFCE analysis has shown that the numbers on taught postgraduate courses more than doubled between 2002 and 2010, yet the increase among domestic students has been just 16%. Nearly half of all postgraduate students in the UK are now from overseas. Amongst research students, growth by international students has been twice as fast as among UK students.

Our universities have benefited from this extra international income, and it is a real concern that the visa clampdown may be reducing the numbers from overseas. But with the impact of £9000 fees, where graduates will have £40-£50,000 of debt after their first degree, the growth gap between British and overseas postgraduates seems likely to widen rather than narrow. We are in danger of losing out real potential.

Unless we address the issue, there is a real danger that we are squandering the talent of a generation, and losing the chance to stretch our brightest minds, so that they develop the innovations and ideas that will be essential to our economy in the future. At the same time, the higher wage premium – around £5500 a year more on average, or £200,000 across a working lifetime, compared to a £100,000 premium for a first degree  – enjoyed by postgraduate degree holders threatens further to widen income inequalities, reducing social mobility.

It is not easy for Government at a time of public spending restraint to consider improved funding for access to postgraduate study. Yet few investments have the potential to create such significant economic gain.

The Higher Education Commission last year urged ministers to extend the student loan scheme in a targeted way to postgraduate study. That would be a good start. But we need to have a much more concerted effort by government, universities and the professions to ensure that postgraduate study is about stretching the brightest minds and not simply dipping into the deepest pockets.

That’s why we need Government, professional associations and universities to develop a coherent offer for postgraduate study, including bursaries, to enable good graduates from low and middle income backgrounds to continue their studies without incurring significant extra debts.

We must keep the impact of the undergraduate fees on the social mix in postgraduate education under careful review, so that appropriate action can be taken where it can be demonstrated that it is further reducing social mobility. The Office for Fair Access should look at universities’ postgraduate recruitment patterns as part of their annual assessment of access agreements, and consider what steps are being taken to ensure a broad social intake.

In the end, it is vital that the best postgraduates, from home and overseas, study in Britain and contribute their ideas and innovations to help power our economy and improve our society. But to maximise that contribution, we need them to be able to do so on merit rather than money.