When the Prime Minister launched the Augar Review in February last year, she said: “The aim of education policy should be to provide the right education for every child…for some children that will be an education that is firmly based in learning practical and vocational skills. For others, it will be an education based on academic excellence.”
Who could disagree. Indeed, the whole purpose of the New Schools Network is to ensure that every child has access to a good education that helps them to reach their potential. Yet the end product of the review has been to open yet another higher and further education debate focused on loans and fees. While some of the recommendations are welcome, such as the return of maintenance grants and more levelling of the playing field between academic and vocational routes post-18, pointing to fees as the barrier to access to higher education is naïve. Of course, finances are an important factor for those going on to study beyond 18 – but if our aim is to ensure our education system enables every child to reach their potential, it is an unnecessary distraction.
What really makes a difference is how aspirational we all are. If we want our economy to succeed, to tackle entrenched disadvantaged, and to ensure that we have genuine equality of opportunity, we need to start long before the age of 18. We should be fuelling children's ambitions from their younger years so that when the time comes to decide which path to pursue in adulthood, they feel confident in making decisions and understand the benefits that further study brings.
We have seen free schools that are unrelenting in their drive to raise aspirations succeed, particularly those teaching the most disadvantaged students. Free schools like London Academy of Excellence, Michaela Community School and those in the Dixons and STAR multi-academy trusts do not shy away from telling their students that if they are committed and work hard, they can achieve. Alternative provision free schools like The Fermain Academy or Derby Pride Academy give our most vulnerable young people space to reflect and refocus, encouraging students to see that their talent and dedication can take them into further or higher education.
Pedalling the narrative that a change in interest rates on student loans will somehow make a world of difference is simply not helpful. Instead, further and higher education institutes should play a much bigger role in working with schools to raise aspirations. They are the institutions the majority of our children will end up progressing to. Surely our top institutions, whether academic or vocational, have a duty to be investing in children throughout their education rather than simply collecting applications at 18.
This is where the Government has missed a clear opportunity. We’ve seen the University of Birmingham, University of Exeter and King’s College London already support free schools that are having a direct positive impact on our young people, opening doors to where they want to be post-18. Instead of tinkering with fees, the Government should instead be pushing more universities to do the same, to work with parents, community groups and established academy trusts to spread their expertise into the school system.
We know technological advances in automation and artificial intelligence will change the job market in the coming decades. That places a higher premium than ever before on investing in human capital, ensuring that talent doesn’t go to waste and unleashing a genuine opportunity. A cut in the headline rate of tuition fees won’t do that but requiring universities to play their part in supporting new schools would surely play a part.