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Changes to university admissions policy are only part of the answer to fairer access, says leading headteacher

Inner-city headteacher and fair access champion Matt Jones has today called on schools and universities to maintain their focus on achieving better outcomes for their pupils.

Speaking in Peterborough at the annual conference of national university access charity, The Brilliant Club, Matt Jones – principal at the Ark Globe Academy in south London – praised progress on contextualised admissions but urged schools and universities to maintain their focus on helping pupils from all backgrounds secure good grades.

Announcing the recent formation of the Elephant Group, a head-teacher led organisation committed to supporting pupils from non-selective state schools into ‘top-third’ universities, Jones said:

“While I welcome proposals for university admissions to take account of the challenges that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds face, I don’t want us to accept a counsel of despair, with admissions criteria seen as the only solution for ‘those pupils’. Schools can do more; they should do more; but it would be a major loss if universities shifted their focus away from working with schools to help pupils reach the top grades.

“Schools and universities working in partnership have already demonstrated the power of identifying, evaluating and then embedding the best interventions. We unequivocally can support pupils to progress to highly-selective universities; this is what The Elephant Group does and will continue to do.”

In a week that has seen discussion of how universities can open themselves up to students from a wider range of backgrounds through changes to admissions criteria, Jones stressed the need for schools, universities and charities like The Brilliant Club to work together to promote university access and readiness throughout primary and secondary school, not just at the point of application to university.

Matt Jones’ calls for partnership working were echoed by prominent figures from the higher education sector. Anne-Marie Canning MBE (Director of Social Mobility and Student Success at King’s College London) said:

“Universities should work in close consort with schools and colleges. When educationalists have trusted relationships, we make faster progress on widening participation. The Brilliant Club is particularly effective at convening schools and universities and supports them to build strong relationships.”

Addressing the conference on behalf of the Office for Students, Chris Milward, Director for Fair Access and Participation said:

“We know that the grades you achieve in school are the most influential factor affecting whether you go to university and where you study.  It’s crucial, then, that universities work actively with schools to raise attainment.  There are now a wide range of inspiring partnerships tackling this across the country, which are helping talented young people from all walks of life to access the life changing benefits of higher education.”

Despite the fact that more young people are going to university than ever before, one-in-four privately-educated pupils go on to attend a highly-selective university, compared to just one-in-forty pupils from low-income households. And although proposals to address this inequality at the point of admission have been broadly welcomed by those in the university access community, some experts have reiterated the need for outreach work to start much earlier.

Only a quarter of children eligible for free school meals achieve any A-level equivalent qualification, compared to half of those who are not eligible – highlighting the need to promote university as an option with children as young as primary school age.

Dr Chris Wilson (CEO of The Brilliant Club) said:

“The evidence shows that when different parts of the education system work together on university access and readiness, we achieve better outcomes for pupils.

“I’ve been so excited to see the mix of partners in attendance at The Brilliant Club’s fifth annual conference, and to hear open conversations about how we can work together to develop, implement and assess practical interventions that meet the needs of different schools, communities and pupils”.

The conference brought together teachers and school leaders, university access professionals, academic researchers, charity workers and policy-makers from across the country. Organised around the theme of “Measuring Up: Research, Evidence and Urgency in University Access and Student Success” delegates discussed major topics in university access, emerging evidence about what works in the field and how the effectives of different initiatives can be measured robustly.

The day featured a variety of presentations, workshops and the launch of new research from think tank LKMco and the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER). You can view the full programme online here.