One of the key ideas that has arisen from this series is the reality that the issues with access to higher education have their root in the system much earlier than the university application process. To start to uncover this in more depth, I spoke to Mrs Helen Salmon – a headteacher who led two schools out of Osted-rated Special Measures, both in Devon; a region where just 41% of students progress to university, and the region with the lowest progression rates to Oxbridge and higher education generally in the UK (see statistics here). She retired 3 years ago but remains passionately involved in campaigning young people’s access to university and volunteers for an Into University after-school club at a school in Bristol.
I talked with Mrs Salmon via email, to try and get a sense of her time as a school leader and her work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She began by detailing her work with the individual schools, and reflected on the manner in which her personal experience had informed her approach.
“I took over the leadership of both secondary schools when they were in special measures. The schools were very different. The first was St James’ School in Exeter, which is a small 11-16 city comprehensive school. The second was Tavistock College; a large rural comprehensive school with a sixth form. Both had got into difficulties through poor leadership and both needed to be turned around. You may well ask what kind of person takes on these difficult jobs. For me I am driven by a very clear belief that all children, whatever their background, deserve a good school. Although both jobs were immensely challenging, there is great satisfaction when you can rebuild the culture [within the school] and put things right. Like many heads who take on such schools, I was the first person in my family to go to university. I was appalled that the pupils of both of these schools had been failed.”
I asked Mrs Salmon more broadly what she saw as the key issues in education more broadly. Her answer was simple and emphatic: funding. “It was [already] difficult when I was a head but after years of cuts and austerity it is even worse now. This is coupled with the difficulties of recruiting good specialist staff, particularly for Maths and Sciences.”
With the focus of this series exploring access to Oxbridge universities in particular, I was intrigued by her view on the value placed on an Oxbridge degree in the first place – given the low rate of university progression in the area anyway, how did that fit with ideas of realistic aspiration and attainment?
“I think that an Oxbridge degree does have value due to the reputation of these universities. I set a target though for students to aim for Russell group universities at Tavistock. This was in no way elitist, I have a very strong belief that if a student in a comprehensive school is bright enough they should be able to study anywhere. The drive to encourage students at Tavistock to aim high was also about rebuilding the schools. I tried to recruit as many good teachers as possible so that our students had a full range of options. I also believe that “a rising tide lifts all ships.” These students could be role models for students in younger year groups. This didn’t mean pushing everybody to Oxbridge – but I do believe in inclusion and I wanted quality progression routes for everybody. That also meant high level vocational opportunities. Whether you wanted to be an apprentice or go to Cambridge, a good school should offer you the appropriate opportunities.”
One of the many things this series has uncovered so far is the depth and complexity of the issue of access – it is multi-faceted and rhizomatic, and one of the key elements of this is the image of Oxbridge itself. In Mrs Salmon’s view, this was essential to remember: “There are many factors that put disadvantaged students off applying to Oxbridge. There may be no experience of university in the family. Some students just think it’s too posh and unattainable. They think that these universities are more expensive than others. At Tavistock we set up the Aspire programme to counter these issues. This involved visits to London, Oxford and Cambridge. We also invited student ambassadors to visit the College. We organised seminars for parents about finances. The residentials were designed to inspire our students to consider applying. I always remember taking one of the brightest students I have ever taught [on a school trip] to Oxford. He was in Year 9. I asked him if he wanted to go and he replied, “No, I couldn’t – it’s far too posh for me.” He was a boy on free school meals. It was then that I realised it was just as much about culture as being clever.”
Another important thing to remember, Mrs Salmon stipulated, is the fact that students from these schools are often dealing with a number of issues that are more to do with their everyday lives than their academic careers, but are still getting in the way of their path to higher education.
“Students have to deal with a number of issues. They are invariably just as bright as students from public schools but some lack the confidence. We [created] interview practice for students so they weren’t intimidated by the interview process. Some people in education view programmes like the one at Tavistock as elitist. I think this is nonsense but some teachers don’t aspire highly enough for their students. I tried to appoint teachers who had a ‘sky’s the limit’ mentality. Some teachers have limited experience of these universities. They need demystifying. Visits, role models, high expectations all challenge these notions. The system remains far too skewed towards public schools. This continues to create divides in our society and to make us less inclusive. The figures from the Sutton Trust on who gets into these universities are truly shocking but not regarded as such by many in the wider society. You could argue that working class students at Oxbridge are there due to tokenism…although every student I know who has got there has done so on merit. I feel that these universities could do more to reach out to comprehensive schools. The current government will do little to help though. Education policy as a whole needs a vision for excellence, [which] is not there currently. My worry is that it is harder for working class students to go now than it was 40 years ago when I went to University. The barriers are still financial and cultural. With current funding cuts to state schools many are unable to offer a fully rounded curriculum. In some schools the Arts and Languages are disappearing, some state school pupils don’t get access to high quality extra curricular provision in sport and the Arts. All of these experiences matter for all young people, regardless of background. The old boy public school network is still far too strong, just look what it’s doing to our government! If the system puts off the talented and able [then] it is losing the potential of some remarkable students.”
Having touched on this idea of nepotism, something that has been mentioned by several interviewees, she went on: “when students are at University they need to be able to engage with a variety of people and ideas. At their best they do this [with] opportunities to travel; to do work experience in places like inner city schools; to shadow people in the professions; [this] should all come through university. These shouldn’t be about who you happen to know or who you went to school with but there for all.”
Finally, I asked Mrs Salmon what she sees as the way to make pragmatic change – what needs to happen now, to start making a difference to the lives of students?
“[The] first step [is for] universities to promote access from students from a range of backgrounds…not just [using] ambassadors programmes, valuable though these are. Universities also need to work more closely with charities such as The Sutton Trust and Into University. The data on admissions needs to be published and critically interrogated. It would be interesting to see what the sixth form in London that is sending many students to Oxbridge is doing (link here). They have students who arrive in the UK as teenagers with no English who get a place at Cambridge. All sixth forms could learn from this.”
As troubling as our discussion had been, it ended on an optimistic note. While she worries that “it is harder now for students from ordinary backgrounds to get into Oxbridge” and that “our society has become more unequal not less so”, Mrs Salmon is determined that university is and should be important for all: “we shouldn’t take this lying down as University can open so many doors to a fulfilling and successful life.”