Fair Access to University

It was suggested to me recently that it was perfectly fair that students from Bolton School should have a harder time (with higher offers) getting into University than less “privileged” youngsters. I have issues with the modish definition of privilege in education, but those may be for another blog on another day. For now, let’s just think about what fair access to University means.As Universities are pressed to address social justice issues and ensure fair access one solution has been to use “POLAR” data. The participation of local areas (POLAR) classification groups areas across the UK based on the proportion of the young population that participates in higher education. In that way it looks at how likely young people are to participate in higher education. POLAR classifies local areas into five groups – or quintiles – based on the proportion of 18 year olds who enter higher education aged 18 or 19 years old. Quintile one shows the lowest rate of participation. Quintile five shows the highest rate of participation. Across Bolton, as you might imagine from a diverse town, we have all five quintiles represented in our postcodes. What might not be so obvious is that, at Bolton School, we also have all five quintiles represented, with 1 in 4 Bolton School pupils coming from postcodes with average or below average HE participation rates. That makes the fact that almost all our pupils go on to University a much more notable achievement than might be commonly thought. It would be all too easy to assume that a selective school would have pupils from backgrounds that are in quintile 4 and 5. We do not. That is, in our case, because of the bursary provision that helps 1 in 5 pupils in the school. I am not sure what that data looks like for Grammar Schools or top comprehensives.

So I very much applaud Universities trying to be fair. By all means think about carefully and constructively using postcode data to help inform admissions. But do not, by way of what seems an easy shortcut, assume that all independent school pupils come from high participation areas because that assumption is simply lazy and incorrect. It is much more complicated than that.


About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is the Head of Foundation of Bolton School. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists. Follow at X: @Philip_Britton | View X/Twitter archive | Listen at: Exploring Bolton School | Social Mobility, Leadership & Future School Thinking | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton