How to fight the right on education, housing and aspiration – and win


The exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions in the middle of January revealed how easy it is for Cameron to bat away arguments about the unfairness of cutting nursing bursaries and maintenance grants. Corbyn came across strongly at the end of his questions with his line of questioning with his points on nursing but Cameron’s lines about ‘uncapping aspiration’ and his argument about economic security at the end were strong and politically damaging.


Here’s a few Corbyn could use in reply: the new funding system is a policy of broken aspiration, lifetime debt and economic hypocrisy. Taking these last two points first, for literally millions of young people the Tories are the party of deficit-makers. For a party that continues to position itself on the economy in relation to government debt, they are strangely insistent on indebting an entire generation up to the eye-balls. This contradiction should be exploited politically and Labour quite simply never has.


On the issue of aspiration, picking out teachers and nurses is symbolically important: both of these are careers which became associated with upward social mobility over the 20th century. But it isn’t enough to talk about the aspiration of safe Labour voters. The greatest political weakness of the Conservative party is the economic vulnerability of the working lower-middle class which their higher education reforms are undoubtedly damaging. Poorer students will now graduate with an average of £12,500 more debt than their wealthier peers. This coincides with the broader changes in the housing market which has seen house ownership and mortgage rates fall since the financial crisis, across all income quintiles and especially for the bottom 60% of households. Fundamentally the aspiration to owner-occupancy increasingly difficult if not impossible for more and more people. Aspiration based around these norms is increasingly vulnerable – it is at least breaking if not broken.


Labour desperately needs to appeal to this demographic but this has to go beyond an electoral strategy. Having soundbites that people understand that we can repeat over and over again matters. But it matters not for the cynical reasons of the Conservatives – what we are engaged in is a struggle to transform the political ‘common sense’ of people and we need to build a movement which can do this. We are trying to challenge the long-term occupancy of power – not just in a political sense but in the deep transformative way that Thatcher shifted English society and culture rightwards. For the first time in my lifetime there is just the possibility that the left could move onto the front foot.


By talking about education and housing we pick away at two areas which are now far more vulnerable areas of social policy for the Conservatives. In these circumstances, social mobility itself as it has been conceived of, i.e. the fair chance through education of free upward (never downward) movement, is politically vulnerable. In an immediate sense, there is a clear tilting of the scales against the poorest and most debt-averse students. But this crisis runs far deeper.


A generation of more affluent though not rich young people, and, let us not forget this essential political point, their parents, are facing the serious likelihood of serious difficulties accessing the housing market combined with a lifetime of debt repayment. Conservative housing policy will deepen social and racial cleansing of inner-city housing, but it does so in a desperate attempt to prop-up middle-class first-time buyers. The trick for Labour is to come up with a policy which speaks to that middle-class anxiety, not because they are our priority but because their status represents the security that many aspire to. We shouldn’t reject that as bourgeois, we should acknowledge that this is the language of the everyday life that people want.


There is a fundamental need for a rigorously thought-out political programme from Labour which highlights these weaknesses, critiques the old models and puts something new in their place. Just as McDonnell announced with reference to cooperative models of worker ownership, ‘we cannot simply turn the clock back’ to old forms of public ownership. The same is true in higher education and we need a systematic programme for a radical alternative to back up the soundbites.


If as Stuart Hall argued, drawing on Gramsci, ‘every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction’ then we have to make sure we win the political argument of the current crisis. This is not just an economic crisis – the crises within education and housing are an opportunity to re-shape not only the political agenda but the deeper social and cultural assumptions which are rapidly being shown to be contradictory. Cameron and the old hegemony of the new right is vulnerable and, with Corbyn as leader, there is an opening for an offensive from the left.


Why we need a radical proposal for an alternative (higher) education system – now more than ever.

I argue that we need a detailed alternative for what we want higher education to look like. We need to learn from past mistakes and fuse our struggles together in a systematic argument for a different kind of university.

The HE Green Paper has shaken the higher education sector, and when the consultation closes on January 15th the legislation that will likely follow will deepen the power of market processes within the system. What it makes clear is that the fee rise to £9000 was only a stepping stone. For those institutions that can show sufficient ‘widening participation’ efforts and NSS scores, fee rises beyond £9k will be possible.

We have to remember that the path for this was laid out not by the Coalition government but by the New Labour years which came before. It was Blair that introduced fees, increased them to £3000 and ordered the Browne Review into HE finance. Labour paved the way for these changes, but Corbyn’s leadership gives us – all of us who work or learn in our universities – a chance to set Labour’s HE policy in the right direction. We need to change Labour’s HE policy, not just the stance of the leadership. Their commitment to removing fees is a phenomenal start, but we need to go much further and deeper in arguing for a system of universities which benefits everyone.

Since Corbyn’s election there have been a few articles thinking about what a ‘comprehensive university’ might look like.[1] In the UK context, the term comes from a book written in 1972 by Robin Pedley, one of the key reformers behind the earlier movement for comprehensive school reform. Pedley posed this alternative model in opposition to the binary system which split the polytechnics with their working-class intakes and more vocational courses, from the older universities which remained bastions of ‘academic study’ and reproduction of middle-class status. In its place, he proposed a model which would bring together Further Education Colleges, Polytechnics and Universities under one collegiate but democratic governance structure in each city or town. This would end hierarchies of prestige, wealth and snobbery and allow much greater movement of students between different institutions.

The system of higher education is now very different, but the binary division along lines of race and class remains. It is still the ‘old’ universities which are dominated by the white middle class and the ‘new’ post-1992 universities, the former polytechnics, which are racially and socio-economically diverse. In his book, Pedley was critical of the decision of Tony Crosland, Labour education minister under Wilson in the 1960s, to implement the conservative proposals for expanding universities outlined in the 1963 Robbins Report on Higher Education.

A more radical alternative was never even considered. Instead Crosland, opted to maintain the political consensus, which expanded higher education but deepened inequalities between institutions. It is exactly here that we have to learn not to repeat past mistakes when it comes to Labour, ‘comprehensives’ and education policy more broadly. This means thinking about what we mean by ‘comprehensive’ and posing a truly radical and modern alternative.

Comprehensive schools were arguably the most radical education reform of the 21st century. Ending selection at 11 was a major defeat for an ideology of educational selection which had held sway in English educational politics since the late 19th century. But the comprehensive school reform of the 1960s did not end gendered, classed or racial forms of disadvantage perpetuated by the education system. New forms of inequalities arose, based particularly around 16 as the new point of academic selection and catchment areas as a means of cheating the system. One radical critique of Labour’s post-war education policy came from those based at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Writing in 1989, Richard Johnson criticised the tendency to defend education ‘as it is’ against neo-liberal attacks, to make short-term ‘tactical’ responses (as Crosland did) with the broader long-term hope that through piecemeal reform, gradual social progress could be made through education. This progress has no doubt been significant, but it has also been so grindingly slow and weak that generation after generation are being educated in a system which divides us much more than it unites us.

The crux of Johnson’s critique was that this kind of short-term thinking blocks the development of an alternative which should be just as radical as the neoliberal education reforms of the 1980s. In his words:

It is not enough to assert the value of pre-Thatcher public education, or to move on to Thatcherite ground, finding some socialist virtues in the market. We need a post-Thatcher version.

New Labour tried the middle option, and for universities (and schools) it consolidated the direction of travel which led us to the dead end where we now find ourselves. We – students, lecturers, cleaners, admin staff – now have no option but to stand and fight, but we must do so clinically and around an organised structural programme for long-term change in higher education.

The comprehensive university is a useful term which we should take and transform to meet our own needs. Yes, we need to abolish the hierarchical system of institutions which creates and reflects sexist, racist and classist structures on the employment market. But we also need to go beyond this – calls to liberate our curriculum, and the campaign to remove racist colonial figures, like Cecil Rhodes, from our universities are important. We need to call for a system which does it all – we don’t want to study at a university which is free from racist symbols but which remains elitist and perpetuates class hierarchy; we don’t want to study in a non-hierarchical system of institutions where women and LGBT students still face harassment. These struggles have to be welded into one.

Over the next five years we will organise to resist the Teaching Education Framework, the Prevent programme and potential fee rises beyond £9k. But we also need to organise, eyes-wide-open, for a thorough and clinical political alternative for HE which we can press for within the Labour party. If the history of comprehensives and Labour’s education policy tells us one thing, it is that we cannot trust Labour to come up with an alternative which is as radical as we need it to be.

We need our own HE Green Paper and it should have all the detail and sharp political implications of a Browne Review of the left. Past radical reforms of education, from the right as well as the left, should give us hope that structural change is achievable. Short-term struggles are necessary, but we cannot keep just fighting piecemeal when what we need is systemic change.

Abolishing fees is only the start and we can, and we will, win.


[1] I ran a workshop on the idea at the NCAFC winter conference in Sheffield in December and you can see the slides here.


Free education, the middle classes and a radical education policy – a class analysis for Corbyn and the student left

I wrote this for Novara FM – you can read the final version on their site here, this is an unedited and slightly longer piece which fleshes out some of the points a little more.

Corbyn’s election has transformed the political landscape for the left and given a new sense of optimism and importance to the free education demo on the 4th November. Removing tuition fees completely is a massive potential vote winner for Corbyn amongst young people and should provide a key rallying point in 2020. However, the pseudo-permanent elephant in the room in talking about higher education is class. I say this not because gender and race do not matter in accessing education (they do and, ultimately, they cannot be understood separately), but because politically the dominance of the, primarily, white and male middle-class over higher education goes unaddressed and we need to tackle it head on. This matters for the student left in how we formulate our demands and it matters for Corbyn both electorally and crucially in the driving ideology which underpins a radical left approach to education. Here’s the problem and some proposals in five steps.

  1. When it comes to free education, the (student) left doesn’t talk about HE as a middle-class dominated domain

The most prestigious forms of higher education remain dominated by, and culturally geared towards, the middle classes. Nothing new here then, but politically this matters. The student left shies away from talking about this, something which comes out in that powerful but anachronistic slogan/chant – “Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes.” Education in its state organized form, is neither the preserve of the ruling class, nor has it ever really been defined or created by or for the working classes. It is also already a mass system (participation is now close to the 50% target, 47% of 17-30 year olds in 2013-14, and it’s actually over 50% for young women) that Blair set back in 1999.  This is a system which is riven fact by a de facto binary class division with working class students overwhelmingly concentrated in the former polytechnics: the binary system of higher education set out by Robbins in 1963 is, in truth, alive and well. Higher education, and state education more generally, has been a central domain for advancement into white collar middle-class employment and then increasingly ensuring that people’s children achieved the same status. It is that intergenerational link which is increasingly under threat and here there is political hay to be made.

  1. The weakness of the middle class right now is politically powerful and free education counts

Free education is a policy which, pre-election at least, actually had relatively little support amongst the general public (though note the support for grants and loans is different…). This needs to be acknowledged and examined but is probably misleading about the political potential of free education as a policy. If we look at how incomes have developed across different social classes over the past 30 years, what we see is a growing gap between the managerial and higher professional class and the rest: the top-end of the middle class is pulling away from lower-level professionals. A lot of the current policy coming out of Cameron-Osborne HQ is designed to prop up middle-class social reproduction – look at the announcement on housing last week. Under the last government the academies programme was quietly used to convert private schools which were suffering financially post-crisis, private school use has also fallen across the North.

The latter point might seem like an obscure point, but it isn’t: the flip-side of these policies is the Tory awareness of the vulnerability of the middle class. If that is true, then, whatever the survey data say about support for fees, there is serious scope to manipulate these anxieties from the left and not simply from the right. Moreover, these are not just anxieties: if wage inequalities between Piketty’s ‘super-managers’ and the rest of us continue to grow there are political problems ahead for the Conservatives. The battle to be had is about framing, the Tories know this and Cameron taking up the ‘good right’ rhetoric last week indicates both a response to Corbyn and an acknowledgement of the deep fissures which run right across the British socio-economic structure.   We need to undermine this by calling their bluff, but also by putting forward an alternative which deals with some of the same anxieties. Free education should be one plank in allowing us to do just that.

  1. Manipulating “middle class” aspirations/anxieties whilst retaining a deeper critique of education as a culturally elitist and classist set of structures

Let me be frank, I am not saying the middle class should (or would) be the main beneficiaries of a free education policy but these insecurities are there to be played on. In Chicago the fight against Charter School reform and associated gentrification has become a multi-racial and multi-class issue, which entails treading a very careful path. Including the white middle class had to be done in such a way that they do not take control – it must not become a campaign of privilege, but it is crucial to acknowledge that power means sitting around one table. In the UK, when educational reform has been at its most radical it has taken a path which has taken advantage of working and middle class dissatisfaction to push for major reform. Ending selection at 11 through the intensely problematic but nevertheless radical move towards comprehensive schooling was one key example of this. In doing this though, we need absolute clarity about the need to challenge the exclusionary and ultimately violent nature of middle class control over educational norms. We don’t want to embed middle-class social reproduction, ultimately we want to abolish it, and to do this we need to go beyond talking about funding. Selina Todd has talked about turning Oxford into a comprehensive: this is where we need to start from and this is where we need to push. Attempts at educational reform which leave the elite untouched will fail. Oxbridge (and to a lesser extent the Russell Group) provide so much of the norms surrounding what counts and matters about learning. These judgements are flawed and arbitrary. There is nothing more violent than imposing forms of culture and knowledge of associated with an elite and building an education system which deliberately and systematically classifies people on the basis of this.

  1. Fighting anti-reformist reforms and subverting old political assumptions

Free education needs to be a rallying call for a long-term, deep critique of education policy. What we are really learning to do here, is to fight for anti-reformist reforms and this requires a new language. Fighting the government’s re-booted discourse on social mobility is a key site for the kind of battle we face. Individual aspiration is, as I have said elsewhere, a blind alley for the left. Social mobility structurally (I’m not talking about the individual level) is not a good thing – it is predicated on accepting and, crucially, legitimizing inequality. If we want to use it as a term we need to transform its meaning. We need a to create a language of collective ‘aspiration’ and we need to underline that this means attacking entrenched privilege at the top, not just ‘compensatory’ measures which aim to ‘improve’ the educational attainment of the working classes and people of colour. The real battle in education is about institutional hierarchy and how that combines with curriculum to reproduce social structures. What we define as ‘knowledge’ and learning is embedded in an institutional hierarchy which primarily serves to reproduce class, racial and gender inequalities on the employment market.

  1. Free education and beyond: what we are asking for is life

And this brings us back to where we started – because the position of many on the student left, including myself, is as products of this educational system built on middle-class cultural norms and practices about learning. It is hard to see how alien and exclusionary higher education is from the position of someone who is in the second or third generation of going to university. For the 50% of people who still aren’t going to university before they’re 30, and it is mostly men, we need an alternative. The student left may be institutionally weak (though stronger than for a long time!), but they’re a whole lot stronger than young people in work, apprenticeships and other training schemes. We want grants and free education – but fundamentally what we are asking for is life – we want a fully-funded transition from childhood to an autonomous, (fully-)automated luxurious livelihood. Alongside our call for free education must be a vocational alternative which is fully-funded and offers secure livelihoods thereafter. Ultimately we have to smash the boundary between vocational and ‘academic’ forms of knowledge but in the meantime a demand of 5 years of fully-funded education or training will do. We need a pragmatic language to talk about education which can draw a range of people in without losing a radical critique which wishes ultimately to demolish the structures and cultures that remain deeply violent.

The old curriculum has to go. The white middle class and largely male monopoly on what counts as knowledge has to come to an end. Hierarchies of institutional prestige need to be eroded. Education has to be free in every sense.

This is the task we face. See you on the 4th November.

Remembering my dad: the politics of grief and death at work

It’s father’s day and I don’t have a dad any more. I am not alone in this, there are others in my age bracket who have also lost a parent, some who never had one and a few who have lost both through some deep awfulness. Despite that, we are ahead of the curve – most people our age will not lose their parents for many years and so much the better; the grief and trauma of losing a parent will come sooner or later but it is never easy. There are times though when people can be thoughtless in how they talk about their parents, a taken-for-grantedness which you cannot understand until they are simply not there. This is the stuff of everyday conversation – talking about seeing them last weekend, what it will be like when they retire and so on. I wouldn’t ask anyone to stop talking about this because of me, but it is difficult. Grief and the sweet-bitter joys of remembering are generally an everyday process, sparked by a memory, a discussion you can no longer have or a question you can never ask.

For me father’s day is not a time of fierce emotion, it digs at me because of the personal unfairness of it in a way which is hard to explain. There’s nothing wrong with having a day to focus on mothers/fathers and all the rest, despite the consumerism which is often associated with it. My dad’s birthday, the day he died and international worker’s memorial day on the 28th April each year are more powerful for me personally. The latter remembers all those who die at or because of work, the TUC puts that figure at 20,000 each year and my dad was one of those. I wanted to publish this then but it was simply too difficult and painful. Similarly attending a memorial event is not something I have felt able to do since 2012. My mum said that she didn’t want to go there and remember in reverence but to scream with anger and grief.

Far worse than any of the feelings I have on father’s day is the personal anger I feel about deaths caused by work. There are few more crass forms of insensitivity than the comments of David Cameron back in 2012 that he wanted to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” He simultaneously succeeded in being extraordinarily offensive to victims of work-related illness, whilst quietly framing greater physical and economic violence against working people amongst a “common sense” argument for less “red-tape”. He thus trounced once and for all the unintended insensitivity of father’s day.

My dad, Simon Pickvance, died in November 2012 of Mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos which he was exposed to in the building trade in the 1970s. He spent his working life fighting with working people for the right to health at work. Initially this was with Sheffield’s steelworkers and builders in the early 1980s, but occupational health or workers’ health goes far beyond this. Links between long-term night-work and breast cancer amongst women are just one example and the UK has a poor record within Europe for de-regulation and inertia in taking steps to improve health at work. For me personally, his death was and still is a deep personal loss. His generation was wrapped up in how the personal is political, and in many ways my grief is no different. Below is the text for a speech which I wrote for a memorial organised by his friends and colleagues in November 2014 on the second anniversary of his death.

This week I’ve been planning a lecture on 1968 as my second supervisor is away (another 68er, though somewhat more ‘angepasst’ – conformist – than dad ever was).[1] Whilst I’ve been planning the talk, right through the process (looking for references, reading, writing the slides), I’ve missed him. Most of the time I’ve wanted to cry. It feels like a fuzziness around your eyes which dips down to the back of your throat and comes back up, burning your face around the edge. My body feels heavy and I sigh. That’s all I do mostly. I have to carry on. But now and again, and now, the tears come.

This is grief. Missing… the missing that doesn’t stop but comes and goes. One day a quick thought of him stabs you but passes quickly. Other days he’s there most of the day because you just want him there. That’s what it’s been like today, reading all this stuff about workers struggles in the 1960s and 70s because you know that if he was still here you’d be talking to him about it.

For me, just now, these autumn days are full of him. It’s partly the time of year – cycling through the park on my way to work with smells of wet leaves, like family walks in the peak district as a kid. It’s also because these were the last terrible weeks of his illness. But it’s the politics, the politics which has really got me today.

I remember talking to dad once about ‘being political’ and what it meant. I can’t remember who said it, me or him, but we both agreed that he was quietly political. I said I was too and he said ‘No you’re not, you’re passionately political.’ Or loudly political. Anyway it’s true, I quite like speaking (and shouting) about politics when I can. Today’s an example really.

What I wanted to say today was really something about politics, about my dad’s politics and about yours – not that I claim to know lots about it. Today I’ve been sat reading about worker’s self-management in France and Italy. So much of what my dad, Sue and John Lawson, Martin, Naomi and many of you were trying to do was about extending that process. About giving working people control over their lives, starting with their own experiences and using that to try and empower them to gain some level of control over their health. Workers’ health.

(I always thought it sounded better than occupational health – I’ve spent about 10 years trying to explain what an occupational health worker is and I always get a confused face).

I was telling a friend recently though about what my dad died of. Of asbestos, used in the building trade, she said to me: ‘But that’s terrible, he was killed from what he worked and fought against.’ My dad never talked about that much during his illness, but she was right.

It is terrible.

And this is where I want to talk about politics. You could call it the politics of grief, but it’s the politics of work as well, and your work in particular. When we first found out about dad’s cancer, when mum and dad told us what had caused it, that it was asbestos, I said ‘They knew, they fucking knew that stuff was poisonous.’ And I was furious, absolutely furious and totally fucking distraught.

That feeling faded, but it never went away. Sometimes it comes back and I kick something – I make sure it’s something soft. More often it hits me like a punch and I wince, suck the air in through my teeth and sigh loudly. Because what it feels like, what it is, mesothelioma and every other work-related illness.

It feels like theft. It is theft.

It’s theft for my dad who lost years that he should have had. It’s theft for us – our family and you his friends and colleagues. And it is theft for all the others who have come before him and will go after him.

People that die at or because of work, they die for no other reason than a fundamental indifference to people’s needs and their basic, basic, right to live a healthy life. Often it’s worse than that, it’s not indifference, it’s pro-active lying. Hiding the evidence, producing corporate-funded academic lies about the safety of asbsestos or lobbying for the de-regulation of working conditions.

My dad spent his working life fighting with you against that. He suffered the same theft of his life that so many others have done.

But I don’t want to get caught up in grief or self-pity. My dad had very little of that during his illness. (Though he did make the most of doing basically no cooking and no house-work and finally letting someone buy clothes that made him look actually quite stylish.) [2]

And I’ll end on this. He was adamant at his retirement do that there was still the same need now to struggle for worker’s health, as there was in the 1970s when he moved to Sheffield. I’m glad that today part of the day will be about current research and progress because there is no greater honour that you could do for my dad than to carry on fighting for worker’s health.

So let’s remember my dad – a partner, a father, brother, friend and colleague. And let’s take our grief and use it to keep fighting.

[1] I’m a PhD student in London.

[2] My dad was a pretty staunch feminist, which is partly why I have my mum’s surname, not my dad’s. The housework was always shared, but my dad’s illness changed that and so much else in my parents’ everyday lives.

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.


Fantastic news from Lewisham. Academization can still be successfully resisted!

Stop Academies in Lewisham

We have great pleasure in announcing that the Leathersellers’ have rescinded the academy orders for ALL THREE SCHOOLS in the Prendergast Federation.

Over the last few months NUT members and other trade union colleagues at the Prendergast Federation, together with students and parents, have mounted a tremendous campaign to oppose the damaging academy conversion proposals. Demonstrations, strikes, meetings – and now legal challenges over Government Regulations – have all helped to keep up the pressure on Governors to think again – and now they have!

This is a major breakthrough for the campaign. It reflects the pressure that has built up over months, culminating in legal challenges that have left Governors with little option but to pull back from their plans. Every union member who has struck, every student that has demonstrated and every parent, SAIL campaigner and letter writer should be proud of themselves for standing firm and refusing…

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