A child’s fate is often decided very early on in its development. That is why government intervention must happen early. Liberal coalition policies such as parenting classes and the pupil premium will help us move away from what Nick Clegg calls a “closed society” where people’s circumstances at birth haunt them for the rest of their life.
The most effective intervention happens before the age of 11, but this mustn’t be where it ends. A lack of decent careers advice and university guidance at some secondary state schools means that many talented pupils are failing to meet their potential.
Just as worrying are signs that those who do meet their potential – i.e. get top A-level grades – are poorly placed to make good decisions. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 9,000 pupils in 2009/10 achieved grades of AAB or above, but attended universities where less than 10% of students achieved such grades.
This doesn’t tell us everything. Some of these students will have applied to specialist courses that are offered only at a small number of places. But many more of them may simply have been unaware that the experience and benefits of going to university differs greatly from one institution to the next.
The government is already looking at ways to make information on universities more widely available. From September 2012, English institutions will be required to place standard sets of information known as KIS (Key Information Sets) on their websites to help applicants “find quickly and compare easily, the headline items which students consider most important”.
While we welcome this development, we fear that the KIS won’t be enough to get people interested, or be looked at by those who need information the most. These concerns are addressed in a new CentreForum report ‘Informed decisions: tackling information inequalities in higher education’.
Our proposals include a national awareness campaign, cash incentives for schools that are successful in getting pupils to look at the KIS, and personalised information on fee, maintenance loan and grant eligibility on child tax credit statements (QR codes and the like).
We urge the government’s access to education advocate Simon Hughes to take a look at these proposals. The Liberal Democrats took a big hit over tuition fees and have so far struggled to explain the merits of the new system. An information awareness campaign, which among other things tells people that no one pays any upfront fees, is surely an attractive proposition?
Gill Wyness is an education researcher at CentreForum, the liberal think tank, and LSE. Tom Frostick is head of press and communications at CentreForum.
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