Can anyone help me defend social engineering?


Appearing on Moral Maze (tonight at eight on Radio 4) I have noticed an inverse correlation between how well I perform and the strength of my opinions on the subject under discussion. So I may need to raise my game this evening as I am arguing in favour of making it easier for children from poor background to get into top universities than privileged children.

I support some ‘social engineering’ – as the opponents of such interventions tend to call it – on two grounds. The first goes back to an argument I made recently in my series on entitlement. The vast majority of people sign up to the principle that all children should have the same opportunity to succeed regardless of their background. But for reasons of liberty, practicality and politics we transgress this principle and allow the well off to pass on privilege to the next generation. Unless we are to abandon the principle we must therefore adhere to it as best we can by using various means to enhance the opportunities which then remain to the under-privileged.

Second, given what we know about the importance of peer pressure, parental confidence and aspiration and the quality of teaching there is surely a strong argument that someone who gets, say, three B’s at A Level in a working class comprehensive has achieved a great deal more – and almost certainly has more underlying talent – than someone who gets the same grades at Dulwich College.

Most people accept some of this. The controversy lies in the way we should respond. More or less everyone is happy with the idea of providing disadvantaged children with various ways to top up their learning and socialisation (for example, summer schools) so that they are more able to compete with the well-off. There is some evidence that these interventions can work, although the Coalition’s decision to scrap the Aim Higher programme means there is now less money for this kind of thing.

Support starts to dwindle when it comes to schemes quietly provided by some of the more progressive Russell Group Universities (they keep it quiet apparently because the other Russell Universities would accuse them of diluting excellence). These combine slightly lower entrance offers for disadvantaged kids with structured programmes of top up and engagement to try to make sure these pupils are not too far behind when they start. I commend the universities which are doing this but it is still voluntary and pretty small scale.

But, as we saw from the heated argument about the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon to be head of the Office for Fair Access, the polarisation of opinion comes when it is suggested universities be required to meet quotas for disadvantaged children and be punished if they don’t.

One way such a requirement could be met is used in various US states (including Florida) where every school is guaranteed that their top pupils, whatever their absolute level of attainment, will be offered good university places.  (Such schemes can have the perverse outcome of making poor schools more attractive to middle class parents but in view of the benefits of more socially mixed schools this may not be an entirely a bad thing.)

Of course, the design of any quota and fine system is very important, but I have no problem at all with the principle. A clinching argument is research I recall reading which shows that when pupils from poorer backgrounds with slightly less good results are offered places alongside their higher achieving and better off peers they end up doing just as well in their degree courses.

The trouble is, reflecting my general mental frailty right now, I can’t remember who produced the research. I’m on in four hours – can anyone help?

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