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Primary Education News
News David Willetts, poor students need hard cash, not a silly letter | Barbara Ellen
The universities minister's plan to encourage bright, disadvantaged pupils is patronising and misses the point
Who wants David Willetts as a pen pal? Don't all rush at once. The universities minister announced plans for the Department for Education, along with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, to send high-scoring GCSE pupils a "letter of encouragement". It will say something along the lines of: "Jolly well done, why don't you apply to university?", accompanied by an information pack and directions to a website.
Only pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds would be targeted, echoing a similar scheme in the US (which saw a rise in applications for top college places). Speaking at the annual conference for the Higher Education Funding Council, Willetts added: "With today's sensitivities about data protection, it's hard for ministers to drop a line directly to Joe or Gemma … but perhaps we can write to the head teachers with a message to pass on." Absolutely. Though perhaps the letter dropping through Joe and Gemma's door is not the biggest problem with this patronising, pointless and, above all, deeply cynical scheme.
Joe and Gemma dodged a bullet – they won't get Willetts's scholastic valentine landing on the doormat. They can wait for the cosy chat with their heads, who might feel similarly bemused that the universities minister targets "bright" pupils in a way that suggests they're not bright enough to know about universities.
Perhaps Willetts imagines national scenes of zombie-eyed GCSE over-achievers, staring dully into space, thinking: "If only I could receive a government letter, calling me by my first name, and telling me to apply to university." The truth is that, if these pupils are getting impressive GCSE results, they've probably not only thought about it, but have also, sadly for some, already dismissed the idea as farcically expensive.
Even staying on for A-levels could be overstretching for badly off students. With the education maintenance allowance abolished in England, it might seem like a cruel joke to tantalise impoverished 16-year-olds with thoughts of university, two financially strained years away. For some families, a member staying a full-time student, therefore a dependant, for two more years, would be enough to kibosh any thoughts of higher education. By the time heads receive these letters in the summer following GCSE exams, some of these bright pupils may already have left. Would all this be trumpeted in the letter, information pack or website? Perhaps that wouldn't be encouraging enough.
Everyone involved in this must know that dispatching "Dear Joe/Gemma" letters isn't the best possible way forward. These students deserve encouragement, but not as much as they need financial aid. In the US, home of the original scheme, a national analysis of high school students showed that 76% of high achievers in the lowest income bracket were still put off applying to universities. Moreover, while lack of information or a dearth of confidence were factors, finances remained the key concern. Sound familiar?
For our bright, badly off kids, the chief obstacle to higher education is not lack of encouragement or broadening of horizons, it's cash – in terms of day to day getting by and the spectre of future debt. It's not just about university tuition fees and loans. It's also about getting the pupils there, and keeping them there, steering them through sixth form, and on to higher education, in a way that feels financially manageable.
How daunting it must be for these skint 16-year-olds to imagine navigating and financing at least five years more of full-time study. In this context, how much help is a computer-generated "Well done!" letter? All this proves is that departments will fall over themselves to develop and implement such schemes because, frankly, being positive and encouraging, putting together shiny information packs and sticking up websites are relatively cheap and easy options. Just so long as they can keep ducking out of providing these students with the only help that really counts.
Three cheers for New Zealand's chirpy MPs
There is a charming video doing the rounds of the New Zealand parliament voting in favour of same-sex marriage, resulting in huge cheers and applause, while the public gallery erupts in a traditional Maori song of celebration. It's truly heartwarming, but also shaming. When did our Westminster mob ever make any noise, apart from boos, catcalls, insults or raspberry blowing? When did they ever inspire the public to burst into spontaneous celebratory song?
Our legislation on civil partnerships had a distinctly non-melodic backdrop of carping from backbench Tories and hand-wringing from sections of the church. Not a tune in sight. If there had been one, it would doubtless have been (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden", or something equally curmudgeonly and joy-sapping.
Had anybody attempted to cheer, applaud, or sing, they'd doubtless have been dragged out and birched, as a warning to others never to show human emotion on the job. The scenes in New Zealand show how parliament could be run. Perhaps not all the time (no one wants to witness party leaders tearfully man-hugging to You Raise Me Upcorrect). But every so often would be nice.
Any twit can do drugs. Even you, Phil
Interviewed for Hunger magazine by This Morning co-host Holly Willoughby, Phillip Schofield admitted to "partying" in his youth, with the caveat: "I never got much into drugs, because I wasn't very good at it." I'm sorry, Phil, but this simply won't do. You and I both know that this is one of those coy celebrity half-admissions that just don't hit the spot.
What does "not very good at drugs" even mean? Schofield says that his real weakness was alcohol, which is fair enough. Many of us could relate to making far bigger fools of ourselves drinking than on drugs. However, Schofield's "not good at it" stance seems to suggest that drug taking demands intellectual prowess, nay, an aptitude for drug-taking that he simply did not possess.
I respectfully disagree. When I took, erm, I mean, observed people taking drugs (from an elegantly dismayed, wholly legal distance), I felt exactly the opposite. I thought it looked fairly easy to take drugs. In fact, very easy, nothing to it, idiots could do it – and they did.
I'm not talking about technically advanced professional-level drug taking, involving syringes, foil, crack pipes and the like, which – give addicts their due – requires true co-ordination and dedication to one's craft. But chucking a pill or tab into your mouth, or snorting up dust that smells like cheap washing powder (and probably is), isn't exactly difficult, is it? Even the trickier forms of drug taking (such as rolling a spliff without it exploding like a burst teabag) only require a modicum of patience and practice.
Perhaps Schofield should have said that while he was much more of a drinker, he was good at taking drugs, in fact, extremely good, one of the best. Anything less is just putting himself down.