"In my experience, however, there are definite flaws in the general cultural attitude towards education in the non-selective system"DANIEL MILFORD

Access is conventionally linked to financial and social issues. A thread which often goes undiscussed in relation to access, however, relates to the values which students internalise as a consequence of their lived experiences. Attitudes towards education propagated in school influence students’ self-perception significantly and, despite how this affects access to institutions like Oxbridge, this is often ignored. Recognising this could not only broaden students’ horizons in all areas beyond school, but also help us to tackle the epidemic of self-selection which narrows the socioeconomic backgrounds from which Oxbridge applicants typically come.

In some parts of the country a divide is established from the age of 11, where students are separated into the grammar or comprehensive schooling systems (alongside private schooling). Such a system suggests that where a child is placed at 11 indelibly signifies the level of their ability and how it will develop throughout their school years, but experience tells us that so much can change from the ages of 11 to 16. In some cases, though, this impression of permanence infiltrates students’ own self-evaluations of their abilities, and thus the opportunities which they perceive as open to them.

“While at my grammar school sixth form we were constantly pushed to achieve more, this encouragement of ambition was far less common in my state comprehensive”

Having attended a comprehensive school up until the end of year 11 and then a grammar school during my last two years of school, I believe it is vital to address how different the attitudes to education really are, often in subtle and nuanced ways, between both systems.

Most obviously, there are funding disparities which significantly hamper many non-selective schools from providing the best possible level of education and the vital work they do in catering to such a range of students despite this must be praised. While grammar schools focus on a specific portion of the student population, non-selective schools have to cater to the full range of students while being increasingly under-staffed and over-populated.

In my experience, however, there are definite flaws in the general cultural attitude towards education in the non-selective system. While at my grammar school sixth form we were constantly pushed to achieve more, mentally broaden our horizons and push ourselves to take up as many opportunities as possible, this encouragement of ambition was far less common in my state comprehensive. Although we had many fantastic teachers who wanted us to do our best, predicted grades were treated as an end-goal rather than something which we could surpass, and our teaching was ascribed with this in mind.

This bleeds into the way our education is treated in the comprehensive system, with obvious and tangible implications for our future. With such a wide range of ability grouped together in the student body, it appears sensible to stratify the year into sets according to individual ability in certain subjects. This enables specialised teaching. However, it also disables further academic opportunity for most of the year, as our academic performance in Year 8 decide sets which remain, for the most part, permanent until the end of our GCSEs at 16. As a result, all but the top set had their opportunity to take triple science removed from a ridiculously young age.

The permanence implied by this stratification hardly encourages many to try and break the barrier imposed. From this emerges a pervasive tendency to visualise grades themselves as barriers – something too difficult to get over if your attainment only reaches a certain point – rather than stepping-stones to reaching the best grade you can get. This sets up a generally defeatist attitude to education which dulls ambition and leads to self-selection when it comes to university applications as students, having internalised such attitudes, automatically believe places like Oxbridge are not for them.


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Of course, the academically-perfectionist attitude permeating the grammar school system also establishes an unhealthy conceptualisation of education. Basing one's self esteem on academic attainment is a dangerous path to tread, often bearing down toxically on students' mental health.

We have to rethink our view of education from its very beginnings to change attitudes and improve access to higher education. Going to university is not the be-all and end-all, and should not be seen as essential for happiness and health. But above all else, the path to higher education has to feel as well as be open to everyone.

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