The logic of the ladder – elite widening participation and the implicit “scholarship boy” discourse which never went away

I argue here that the logic and implied class-ism of “raising up” a gifted few through the 11+ was never completely lost and has returned with a vengeance in the widening participation discourse at certain elite universities.

‘[…] whenever there’s something about Russell Group admissions in the press the Russell Group say, “Well it’s not our fault, schools aren’t producing enough poor kids with A’s and A*’s, so what can we do about it?”’

Widening Participation Coordinator, Limeways Sixth Form College, London.

‘L’Ecole Libre d’abord, l’IEP ensuite, ont permis l’ascension de quelques « sur-socialisées »… leur réussite sociale constitue une sorte d’alibi pour la rue Saint-Guillaume qui peut se targuer de recruter dans les classes dites inférieures.’[1]

Across a range of different elite educational institutions, not only in England but in France too, there has long been an acceptance of the need to recruit a (small) number of students from socially, racially, geographically or gender-oppressed backgrounds. The beginnings of opening-up of secondary schooling in England were rooted in this logic of selecting a chosen few from the working classes to access academic, middle-class dominated forms of education. At first this worked through state-funded scholarship schemes for a small proportion of ‘free scholars’ to access secondary schools, then after 1944, it was generalized through the 11+ exam, as secondary school became free and accessible “for all”.

This system produced some of the most famous figures and works of post-war social science and cultural critique of the education system. Authors such as Olive Banks (1955), Richard Hoggart (1957), Dennis Marsden and Brian Jackson (1962) drew in part on their own experience to problematize a system of education which operated a form of social apartheid. This system produced complex splits and divisions between academically-able working class communities and the families and neighbourhoods they came from. For the grammar schools involved, and post-war society more widely, these students provided a sort of ‘social alibi’ which allowed the justification a system of education that still overwhelmingly benefitted the middle and upper classes, at secondary and university level.

However, I want to argue that the structural logic that was at work has not disappeared from our education system. As the schools and universities have expanded, this ‘logic of the ladder’, and the insidious ideological alibi that it provides, has simply moved upwards. It is no longer entry to grammar school where this filter of social selection and limited diversification of the middle and upper classes occurs, instead it is our elite universities who have taken over this function, and it is widening participation (WP) that has allowed them to do it.

I should say now that I am not opposed to widening participation, far from it. It is something I have been involved with indirectly and directly through my research and something which I see as potentially emancipatory – though more often this is at the individual than at the collective level. What I wish to problematize here is the underlying issue that at times, elite institutions’ widening participation efforts are not egalitarian, in fact quite the contrary, they are openly selective and geared towards finding the ‘scholarship boys and girls’ of the 21st century.

When I was gaining access to the sixth form schools and colleges, one of my opening gambits would be, “Maybe your school/college would be interested in the WP work that King’s does…” In one sixth form college I worked in, when I handed the HE adviser the leaflet about the KCL scheme, which requires 5 GCSEs at A or A*, she simply said “Oh we have hardly any students that meet those criteria.”[2] Again, in another college, I was told:

So um, for example with the grade requirements for WP programmes, we get all these things from UCL and its like, all these students must have 5 A*s to come on the widening participation programme and you think well, that’s er, we’ve got 1600 students and there’s like 3 students who would have that, and those students are already getting bags of support, what about the other… and I sent an email to that effect to the person at UCL and they were defensive about it. And also the other thing is that, it’s not unrealistic, we sent two students to Oxford last year who wouldn’t have got onto the UCL programmes. Er, which I tell them and they sort of shrug

Widening Participation Coordinator, Limeways Sixth Form College, London.

He continued:

And I was in a seminar with someone from UCL outreach, but they um, they said “We used to run a thing with students that got Bs and Cs at GCSE and we worked with them for a couple of years and we worked with 250 students and actually only 1 of them got into UCL so we’ve stopped doing it.”

Now, it goes without saying that these intensive summer schools, year-long mentoring schemes are great for those students who get on them, who probably ‘are already getting bags of support’ from different schemes or universities. Clearly university WP departments have limited resources and they do great work within, and often beyond, the remit set for them – my aim here, please understand, is not WP staff, some of whom I know very well and count as my friends. The issue is the structural function that WP serves for elite universities and how this plays out in the field of post-16 education more broadly.

For those students who are able and aspiring to attend university but do not meet the criteria, what is the value, or indeed the point, of WP schemes which are already openly academic selective? The logic seems to be overwhelmingly clear: what we are looking for is ‘enough poor kids with A’s and A*’s’, if you don’t meet those criteria then we are not interested. I am oversimplifying here, and there are wonderful schemes, such as those at St. George’s medical school, Bristol, Sheffield amongst many others with extensive programmes and context-based admissions. Nevertheless, the core issue is that widening participation within the Russell Group serves a minority of students, and more specifically a minority of “non-traditional”, first-generation university students, in the post-16 sector.

Clearly this is, as the second quote implies, a dilemma for WP departments who are being asked, presumably by management, to run schemes which will help elite universities meet their OFFA-set targets for widening participation students. Again in my interviews, it is through anecdotes with senior members of university staff where attitudes towards WP at certain elite universities is made abundantly clear:

when Harway College opened their new building […] they had an inaugural opening and Harway has got a link with UCL, […] ‘Gerald Pomp’ [a senior university manager] came and did a speech and he sat in the room, we had other universities there, he sat and made his speech saying How wonderful it was that they were linked with this brand new sixth form building and it was a wonderful building: “UCL are at the forefront of widening participation, we’ve set up this, this and this.” At that point, the people from London Met got up and walked out, because they thought “We aren’t listening to that – you aren’t!”

Another time, I sat in UCL at a meeting where he [G Pomp] was saying the same thing, a meeting for careers advisers and teachers, and for some reason he did his speech where we were all being served food, there were two chefs, West African chefs, behind him and he was talking about diversity and I caught their eye. And they were looking at each other going like that [Shrugs/disbelief] they were probably PhD or MA people with degrees having to work as chefs and they thought, what is this guy talking about? You know, I wish I could have taken a picture, if it had been in the days of smartphones I could have taken a picture and caused havoc.

David, HE and Careers Adviser

These two anecdotes underline the sheer absurdity and rank hypocrisy which can underline the attitude towards widening participation in elite higher education institutions. My quotations above have singled out my former university UCL, but I doubt that this attitude is limited to senior management at that university alone. Moreover, I am sure, in fact I know, that WP staff at UCL are committed and that their WP work does indeed make a difference to students who are involved with it. What is at stake here, once again, is the farcical claims made by elite figures in the university about the effect of their WP efforts in a context where the majority of first generation students still attend post-1992 universities.

What has returned, and perhaps never truly went away, is the deep logic and symbolic violence of selection within the British class system and its schools. Selection of a gifted few to be raised up into a diversified and socially acceptable elite and a shrinking and increasingly fragile middle class is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the urban-industrial roots of British class structure and the schools that it produced (Banks, 1955; Hoggart, 1957; Jackson and Marsden, 1962). Looking forward to the 21st century, we have not rid ourselves of the vicious and implied classism of tri-partite selection which secondary education “for all” relied on. Rather, as is so often true with matters of class in British society, the mode of selection and its ideological supports have mutated, in this case moving upwards as secondary schooling and higher education have expanded.

In the twenty first century we need, more than ever, to break the logic of the ladder. We cannot seek to build an egalitarian model of education (higher, secondary or otherwise) on a mode of widening participation which itself is already selective. It is time to burn some sacred cows, first amongst them has to be the idea that raising up a select few and diversifying elite institutions is some educational panacea for the university system. It isn’t. In the short-term, of course, we have to and should continue with these pragmatic steps. But we need to radicalize it from within: open up these widening participation schemes, build sustainable partnerships with schools and colleges, look beyond the logic of simply meeting market-driven targets for WP students. I know that WP work already involves all of these things, and I am aware of pontificating, quite literally from an ivory tower – I apologize for this in advance. Nevertheless, what is at stake here goes right to the heart of a left-wing, radical progressive stance on education: we cannot base our approach around individual aspirations, we need a radical collective approach to schooling which challenges the structures and language within which we are forced to operate. Only then can we begin to dismantle the ladder which has dominated British educational ideology for more than a century. If we start to do this, then we will have no need for social alibis because the education system will begin to be truly ours.


Banks O. (1955) Parity and prestige in English secondary education: A study in educational sociology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hoggart R. (1957) The uses of literacy: Aspects of working class life, with special reference to publications and entertainments, London: Chatto and Windus.

Jackson B and Marsden D. (1962) Education and the working class: some general themes raised by a study of 88 working-class children in a northern industrial city, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[1] Gérard Vincent, Sciences Po. Histoire d’une réussite, (Paris : Orban, 1987), p. 294. ‘First the Free School [abbreviation of the original name of the school, l’Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques, the free school of political science], then the IEP [Institute d’Etudes Politiques – Institute of Political studies] have allowed the rise of a few “over-socialised” individuals… their social success constitutes a sort of alibi for rue Saint-Guillaume [the road on which Sciences Po is situated, often used as a short-hand abbreviation for the institution itself] which can pride itself of recruits from the classes said to be inferior.’ The IEP Paris is an elite French university, with a similar focus to LSE. Since 2001 it has operated a ground-breaking widening participation programme with an admissions stream and year-long programme for students from schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

[2] I should say that despite this, the work of King’s was praised by other WP/HE advisers.


4 thoughts on “The logic of the ladder – elite widening participation and the implicit “scholarship boy” discourse which never went away

  1. You make some fair points. However, while you try to not bash WP too much, I think you’re caught between sympathy and critique, and you end up criticising the wrong target. Essentially you’re blaming universities for pursuing WP programmes that are merely intended to recruit bright students from non-traditional backgrounds. But what else do you actually expect universities to do? As you know, social class remains the strongest predictor of educational attainment, while structural economic transformation is what drove significant social mobility in the immediate post-war decades. In the new low-growth economy, social mobility is stagnating because the opportunities just aren’t there, and social class has re-solidified in a grossly unequal manner. The state, having abandoned any aspiration for changing the social structure, has now passed the responsibility for enabling social mobility to educational institutions. But without class dynamism and economic opportunities, schools cannot magically produce brilliant students, nor can drafting into university ever larger numbers of students who are not academically gifted magically enable them to get excellent jobs that do not exist. Is it really any surprise that universities given WP targets focus on trying to recruit able students? The UCL person you quote saying they only recruited 2 students so abandoned their programme may sound selfish, but is it really appropriate that a university’s resources be expended on individuals who will never even attend that university? Isn’t that the task of schools? Or the state more broadly? Why exactly is it an individual university’s responsibility to raise the average level of secondary-educational attainment? Wouldn’t it make more sense to indict the state – and the socio-political forces behind it – for their sleight of hand in first destroying the social circumstances that enabled social mobility, then passing the responsibility onto institutions that are powerless to effect significant change?

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Lee.

    Am I blaming universities? I’m certainly not blaming WP staff as I think I make clear. It is, of course, impossible to expect universities to deal with structural educational inequality of the scale we face. Between ‘the state’ and universities it is clear that the former, however it is described or defined, bears greater responsibility. However, to exclude the universities from blame would be wrong, above all and especially for those institutions at the apex of the British socio-political structure. These are institutions which have been in the business of elite and middle class formation for over a century. Moreover their senior management teams are frequently proactively engaged in this process – to an extent clearly they have little option to do otherwise. But to absolve them of guilt, even if it is OFFA targets which mean they have to focus on recruitment not broader programmes with their limited WP budgets, would be wrong. They make political decisions though they may dress them up as being ‘in the best interests’ of the university as a whole. There are alternative models of what a university can be like, even within the restrictive frame of a capitalist society and state (see for example the recent reforms to governance structure which are going ahead in Scottish universities). We shouldn’t, and I believe we simply cannot, allow universities to be absolved of criticism or blame for inequalities in the education system and society more broadly. Education should lead to a collective upward movement in society, not individual social mobility, and within the constraints we all face, we have to work towards this.

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