Higher rate tuition fees: the Pandora’s box

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I am mulling the various debates that centre on this most pressing of matters – the raising of higher rate tuition fees to £9000. It seems the whole country, united or divided, is enraged, engaged, or driven to flippancy, hostility, or some such emotion by this issue. There is a veritable Twittering mass that delcare their views daily for or against. Some less desirable sentiments have emerged too, that I may take issue with, but then, each to their own. 

I have been deciding where my sympathies lie, what side of the fence to sit, where to declare my support, and for why.

It seems quite possible to have an opinion on most anything, and to be engraged, exasperated, infuriated, unsettled and disconcertingly agitated by much of what is happening in the world of education, in finance, in health-care, wherever we may turn our attentions, so vast and sweeping are the changes set before us under this new Coalition Government and governed by this climate of austerity. I am striving for some middle-ground, for some place to rest my mind and my soul.

Imperial College, London, has declared its intention to charge the maximum rate of £9000 student fees, and that action alone, catching as I’m sure it has, many a journalist off-guard, has set a precedent. It was largely assumed Cambridge would be first to declare. What an upset for the apple-cart that announcement has been.

This decision by Imperial College must be submitted to the Office for Fair Access by 31st March who will determine if I.C.s application meets with the ‘exceptional circumstances’ ruling.

Now, here, I have to declare my reservations and set forth a whole host of discontent with our current educational systems, but how to find a starting point, that is the question.

I have used before, on Twitter most recently, a definition of the innate difference between private education and our state sector with reference to special educational needs, but the comparison holds true where we talk about our social inequalities, the deprivations of the poor.  I see these differences defined by a culture of attack or a culture of retreat. In the private sector, what we see predominantly is an ‘attack culture’, whereas in our state sector we have a ‘retreat culture’.

In an attack culture, problems, which include special educational needs and social factors associated with deprivation or reduced income, are challenged, fought, approached with vigour, attacked… So, we have the determination of many of our leading public schools to achieve a status through, as an example, the number of Oxbridge entrants it successfully places in one or other of our leading Universities, Oxford or Cambridge.

The growth in the number of Foundation places at many of our public schools, which replaced the earlier, Government funded Assisted Places scheme, shows the commitment of many to take on young people with potential and guide them towards increased opportunities, higher aspirations. These places are funded through each school’s own careful, long-term fiscal management, vision and founding principals. Despite that Government funding of the Assisted Places scheme ceased in the late 1990s, there has been a determination of our previous Labour Government to strip and share assets and expertise from the private sector and to distribute this far and wide out into the community. This is no quid pro quo. There are no gains, only sanctions and unappreciative recipients, who brimming over with hostility, demand more of the spoils, and not less. Success breeds, if nothing else in this country, envy and resentment.

A ‘retreat culture’ conversely, moves away from difficulty, from addressing special needs or disability, from accountability. It aligns itself more closely with rationalizing reasons why success cannot be achieved. It is comfortable only when it can apportion blame, when it can opt out of responsibility, when it can find evidence to support its lack of progress, its failure to make headway, to meet targets set.

In our state sector, much that I have commented on this before, far more effort is driven to finding ways around individual difficulties, individual failure to achieve, than is ever devoted to resolving or over-coming difficulty. So, the child who is not reading, or writing, or functionally literate in our primary schools, may achieve quite comfortably good SATs levels at the end of each key stage, because systems are in place to ensure that scribes and readers and extra time are allocated, and the essential skills needed to access such assessment, to a certain degree, can be compensated for. It is as if the day of reckoning can be delayed, and the blame for later poor attainment and achievement, set firmly at the door of secondary education, in the case of our primary sector.

Of the many young people I have made assessment of across several Local Authorities, in many hundreds of schools in our state sector,  invariably there is a desire from the school’s part to find ways around the literacy difficulty, the numeracy difficulty, the social difficulties, the emotional difficulties…

Funding plays a large part, and resources to address SEN are finite and a constant challenge, yet funding alone is not the most significant factor in whether a young person with special needs will over-come, or be increasingly debilitated by their SEN. A willingnes to engage, a commitment to addressing the need, whatever that takes, is our greatest determinant of success, the combined efforts of student, parents and school. In too many instances, the young child with poor literacy skills continues for too long in our state school systems with the difficulty growing larger and more significant by the day.  Often that child’s timetable may look promising, hi-lighted with opportunities to work with a literacy buddy or numeracy buddy, or to work on token schemes that little address the real needs, until the initial difficulties are compounded by low self-esteem, by social emotional or behaviour difficulties, by mental health issues, by a co-morbidity of SEN that is part and parcel of the consequence of needs unaddressed. 

I see this state of affairs frequently in my ‘assessment advice up-date (1) or assessment advice up-date (2) where, after a period of a year or more of school-based and external interventions, the young person’s SEN now encompasses not just ‘cognition and learning’ but ‘behavioural, emotional and social development difficulties’ or ‘communication and interaction difficulties’. There is a reason for this and it is stark and unyielding – the young person’s needs have not been adequately or effectively addressed, notwithstanding there will be some young people, for whom, SEN will be complex and long-term

Our attack and retreat cultures determine our response to social inclusion, something that has been hi-jacked as a philosophy and creed by our socialist-inclusion advocates of the past decade.  Ironically, I would say that those operating within an attack culture to issues of SEND, of social mobility, of opportunity and aspiration, are far more likely to achieve the desired end goals of increased social mobility, than those operating in the safe haven of ‘retreat’.

I return to my earlier comment –

This decision by Imperial College must be submitted to the Office for Fair Access by 31st March who will determine if I.C.s application meets with the ‘exceptional circumstances’ ruling.

The threat of the imposition of sanctions on Universities charging the higher rate fee if students from poorer backgrounds are not admitted, the debate given to compelling some universities to take in students who have not met expected grades, or risk futher sanctions, is part and parcel of what I see as our nation’s habitual response to success – envy and resentment. 

It is part and parcel of that trend for delayed accountabilitythat permeates our education system – the primary schools that fail to address needs, pass the buck to secondary education. Secondary schools, failing to make a difference, similarly, pass the buck…

Opportunities to spot the students in our schools with unrealized potential abound, through the early years of primary school, through GCSE and A level studies. I question whether it is the duty or responsibility of our universities to tap into unrealized potential where that has not been recognized before, or whether accepting lower than usual entrance grades can be a sustainable means of realizing this potential.

Simon Hughes, the Government’s adviser on access to higher education, has declared that universities should limit their intake of privately educated students to reflect their proportion in society. How bizarre, how uncharitable, how preposterous. Our country and our Coalition Government continue to fail to appreciate that what truly drives success is not sanctions, a dumbing-down of all things to the lowest denominator, but a commitment to academic excellence, to a culture that sets no limits on human apsiration or value or worth.

Estelle Morriss, in an interview on BBC Radio a few evenings ago called for an end to the smug atmosphere of Oxford or Cambrige Dons and an attitude of complacency towards students from poorer backgrounds (excuse my paraphrasing). Having no first-hand knowledge of this, I cannot counter it, but I do disagree with the sentiment that, on this basis, more should be done by the Universities themselves to reach out to students from poorer backgrounds. I would say, wholeheartedly, much more should be done by those in our state sector schools to bridge those gaps in expectation and challenge  a poverty of aspiration that constrains too  many students.

Many in our teaching workforce, holding dear to socialist ideals, harbour deeply held resentments towards anything that smacks of elitism – our good performing private schools, our grammar schools, our top universities. What holds back many of our students, what limits their chances and aspirations, is the attitudes and values of our teaching workforce.

We will not resolve these problems by imposing sanctions on the very institutions who have been most successful in unlocking the key to potential, our highest performing Universities.

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