While these ideas are important in sparking debate, it is important to remember there are already grassroots projects which are transforming educational opportunities for young people.
In his report, Seldon argues that private schools should be more involved in the state sector, sharing their expertise by setting up free schools or sponsoring academies. Meanwhile state schools should seek to ‘emulate the best features of independent schools’, house systems or boarding, for example.
But it was one of Seldon’s more extreme proposals that dominated coverage of his report. ‘Rich parents should pay £20,000 for best state school places, says top head’ was the Guardian’s headline. Seldon argues that parents earning over £80,000 a year should pay for their children to go to a popular state school, with those earning £200,000 paying up to £20,000 for the privilege.
This, Seldon argues, would end the phenomenon of children from affluent backgrounds dominating places at the best schools, and crucially increase social mobility. While the sentiment is popular, his ideas have not attracted political support, with the government and the opposition paying them little attention, suggesting they are unlikely to become reality.
Away from government and party politics, third sector organisations are leading straightforward but pioneering projects, which are promoting social mobility.
IntoUniversity, for example, is a charity which supports young people in some of London’s most disadvantaged areas by offering mentoring, tutoring and advice on how to get into university. I volunteer once a fortnight at their academic support sessions, which provide invaluable opportunities for pupils from local secondary schools to study, either doing homework or revising, in a calm environment.
Before I began volunteering I was required to undertake extensive training, and this commitment to ensuring volunteers provide high quality support has continued throughout the time I have spent with IntoUniversity. After each session volunteers review how it went, highlighting good performance or behaviour, as well as letting IntoUniversity’s staff know of any challenges they encountered. This allows staff to track behaviour and progress, and provide extra support to pupils and volunteers where necessary.
During the support sessions I have assisted a variety of enthusiastic young people, providing assistance with a selection of topics; from the Roman Empire to particle physics to simultaneous equations. Of course, I would never claim to be an expert in all these subjects, but tutors can provide a valuable insight into how to study and how to approach work, whatever the subject.
As well as helping young people with their work, volunteers – all of whom have a degree – are also on hand to provide an insight into university to young people who may not have a history of going on to further study in their families. It is all about broadening horizons, allowing pupils to access knowledge and experience of university, removing some of the myths associated with it, and making it a much more realistic proposition.
Crucially, IntoUniversity is so much more than a drop in centre, and works hard to track the progress of their students after leaving school, achieving excellent results. In 2012, 77.1% of IntoUniversity students progressed to university compared with the national average for state schools of 34%. These results demonstrate the significant contribution such projects can make to young people’s education and are all the more remarkable when one remembers that they work in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas.
Different ways of promoting social mobility are always welcome, and Anthony Seldon provides some interesting perspectives in his new report. While they are debated, practical ways which are being led by organisations such as IntoUniversity should be celebrated and replicated.