Enabling Enterprise Education Associate John Cronin offers his insights into how more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are getting into the top universities, in spite of a widening wealth gap. This articles was first written for The Brilliant Club.

There is a 10% rise in the proportion of disadvantaged students going to the best universities this year.

It was a positive sign when it was announced in December that the poorest 18 year olds in society have managed to increase their number at the best universities in the country. The access gap between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged had until this surprise announcement been seen as ever widening. In 2010 the Sutton Trust reported that only 16% of students on free school meals went onto university compared to 96% from independent schools. Could it be then, that finally the tide is turning, and if so why?

The wealth gap

The narrowed access gap that the report suggests seems to contradict the perception that the wealth gap is widening. The facts back this perception up; over the last 10 years, the richest 10% have seen a real net income increase of 38% compared to the bottom 10% seen a real net income decrease of 12%. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. So how are more disadvantaged young people managing to go to university?

If the access gap is finally narrowing then perhaps some young people who previously didn’t get the grades for the best universities and best jobs or believed they were not for them, now are getting the grades and do have the confidence to make it. According to the Office for Fair Access (OfFA), who celebrated the figures from today’s report, this is about more being done to ‘raise aspirations and academic achievement’. Universities, schools and businesses are making a difference to students. Over the past four years, here at Enabling Enterprise we have seen, first hand, how the schools and businesses we work with will time and time again impact on their aspirations.

The role of aspirations

Take Park View School in Birmingham, for example: Their term-long after-school English enterprise project involved them combining their literacy and enterprising skills to come up with brand new school publications including ‘The Student’ and ‘PK View 4 U’, packed with news, gossip and special features. By the time the students arrived at Lloyds Banking Group they had impressive prototype copies to showcase and spent the day sharpening up their publication presentations with the seasoned presenters from Lloyds. This evidently helped them all deliver self-assured and persuasive presentations. The culmination of hard work from the students, the school and our businesses paid off and gave the students the experience of success and a belief they could succeed again.

While these students hopefully will go on to aspire for their best, we know many students do not. This can be for a variety of reasons but household income should not be one of them. Despite today’s promising statistic, for every one of those disadvantaged students who have made it to a top university, there are approximately four more advantaged ones. We are seeing the students we work with, thanks to the support of their schools and our business partners buck that prevailing attitude among young people that wealth is a barrier to higher aspirations, clearly made harder by the £9,000 tuition fees charged from this year. If we give all students a fairer chance at accessing the best opportunities for them, then that wealth gap as well as the access gap might start to narrow too.

Building aspirations

We believe at Enabling Enterprise that aspirations come from widening students’ experiences. We do this by giving them the opportunity to create their own ideas and run with them until success, whether that be a whole-school talent show, a community garden or turning recycled trash into a toy of the future. To then take this experience and share and build on it with professionals in top London businesses, we have seen them believe they can succeed beyond school too. To know it was them, their set of skills and talents that made it happen inspires them to believe they can achieve again.

These aspirations won’t be changed, however, if we don’t give our students the opportunity for success. Recently Ofsted Chief, Michael Wiltshire expressed concern that the poorest of students are not being targeted with pupil premium funds set aside for them. The access gap is narrowing and that is because some students’ aspirations our changing but not enough. There is still much more to do.

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