The BBC and Guardian are reporting on Alan Milburn's new report on class division and access to the "higher" professions in England and Wales. The fact that the social division in Britain is now greater than when Labour first came to power raises the question as to whether we can really expect them to tackle the issue effectively now. There is much talk of universities being required to commit more effort to widening access, etc. When reports like this come out, I'm always tempted to think back on my own experience (I know, anecdotal!) and wonder to what extent such proposals would actually have had any influence on my wider peer group. I came from what today would be called a "socio-economically disadvantaged" group in the Glasgow area with noone else in my family having had experience of higher education. Certainly, one of the key factors that even made contemplation of university a possibility was the grants system, but some of the biggest obstacles I faced in terms of attainment and success were encountered at secondary school level where teachers had low expectations for people from my background but encouraged those from wealthier areas. We had a comprehensive state system with pupils from mixed backgrounds, which I also believe was important since I was at least exposed to people for whom higher education was a presumed entitlement, even if teachers didnt presume it was a legitimate aspiration for some of us.
Many teachers tried to steer me and others into seeing working in the local rocket factory (honest!) as being a worthy ultimate goal. Concentrate on science and you'll get an apprenticeship molding solid fuel tubes for missiles! When I did my exams and scored highly I remember my registration teacher being bemused and somewhat flustered about someone in that group looking for university application forms. Careers offices, teachers and the Rector (headmaster) all worked hard to limit our ambitions as best they could and sadly I let them all down by studying hard and moving to Edinburgh where despite it being overwhelming middle (and upper!) class, not a single lecturer ever made any comment about class or background - so long as you enthused as much as they did about quantum mechanics, general relativity and star formation you were in!