The Three Gap Yahs of University
By Charles Kowalski
Tony Little, the current headmaster of Eton, who is stepping down to work for a Dubai based chain of fee paying schools, wrote in the Times Higher Education that first year university students were receiving substandard education. The article appeared just before publication of his book, which describes Little as a visionary who just had to speak out. It says: “One of the most progressive and imaginative people in British education today he has hitherto kept a low profile”. There is also a plug for a possible TV series too.
Little complained that pupils from his school, which charges £34, 434 per year, felt that university teaching was not up to scratch and he added to this the conjecture that an emphasis on research had to undermine teaching, except with a few younger staff. To remedy this, he called for university lecturers teaching first years to undertake internships in schools to see how it should be done.
Clearly reliance on anecdotal data and inferences based on a non sequitur coupled with a ‘get out clause’ (research must undermine teaching (except where it does not)) are teasingly bits of joshing designed to whet our appetites to buy the book and see the TV series.
Let’s consider a few points though. School and A level education is based on teaching to the test. Model answers are memorised as a means to pass a test. Fee paying schools have more resources to pay for this spoon feeding. University education is meant to be based on students becoming independent learners who are able to undertake their own research, motivated, hopefully, at least in part, by a love of learning for its own sake as much as any concern to ‘do well’. If a private education enhanced pupils’ ability to be independent thinkers and problem solvers then they should adapt well to the new challenge that university presented and enjoy the golden spoon being put away. However, a study by the Sutton Trust in 2010 and two separate studies in 2013 undertaken by researchers at Cardiff University and Oxford Brookes University, found that pupils from comprehensive schools outperformed those from fee paying schools. In other words, those with higher grade A levels who had less resources spent on them were better able to adapt to university than those from more privileged backgrounds. The Telegraph also reported in 2013 that data from the Higher Education Funding Council showed that those from private schools got better grades. However, as an article for the Local Schools Network argued, the HEFC study had over 16000 respondents with ‘unknown’ schooling backgrounds and the data suggested that financial concerns may impact on degree results. With the cap coming off tuition fees and the abolition of the grant for students from poorer families (replaced with a loan), money worries may only rise amongst those who do not regard annual fees of less than £34,000 to be a big reduction in tuition cost.
Nonetheless, students from privileged backgrounds tend to get higher paid jobs with privilege being reproduced. A number of factors contribute to this, such as the ability to undertake unpaid internships in central London and social networks. Recently, research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that recruitment panels often used accent and mannerism as proxies for intelligence and ability, which acted in effect as ‘poshness tests’ to screen out bright graduate from non privileged backgrounds.
So, if Little wants to improve education it would be better to send his privileged pupils to comprehensives rather than send lecturers off for training on how to spoon feed privileged students. However, if education is just a means and not something valuable in itself, then having a posh education may be the best means to get a posh job from a posh seeking selection panel. The 3 gap yahs from privilege do not seem to do that much harm to the reproduction of privilege.