What would it take to break the link between A level results and family income?

From students jumping in the air, to accusations that exams are getting easier, A-Level results day wouldn’t be the same without the usual clichés.

But what goes on behind those headlines?

There are the young people who defied expectation and achieved brilliant results, usually with the support of teachers and parents who struggled to ensure it was their ability, not their background, which determined their success. Then there are the young people that haven’t got the needed grades to secure their university place. And others who never even believed they could get high enough grades in the first place.

Sadly, we know that for many of these pupils, it was never really a question of making an informed choice about the best educational route. It was just an accident of where they happened to be born.

In 2013, we published a book called ‘We Need to Talk About Education’. In it, a London-based teacher, Katie, talks about a pupil she taught at A-Level. Though this pupil faced challenges and a troubling background, she was a brilliant student: naturally bright and heading to Oxford. But, at the last minute, the pupil didn’t turn up for her A-level exams. And even though the teacher sent a taxi for her, and tried to reassure her as best she could, the pupil couldn’t do it. The teacher said it was heart-breaking; some pupils simply don’t know how to grab your hand.

For pupils like these, the challenges are so great that it can be difficult to know how to break the cycle. The statistics can lead to a lazy belief that such failure is inevitable. After all, if you go to a private school you’ve got a 20 to 1 chance of getting in to Oxbridge. If you’re on free school meals, those odds plummet to 2,000 to 1.

These statistics suggest we are wasting talent on an industrial scale

These statistics suggest we are wasting talent on an industrial scale. They also shed light on what educational inequality means for a generation of young people. Yes, standards matter. And yes, we should celebrate successes, but too few headlines explore the deep structural inequalities in our education system. And this is where our attention should turn after A-level results day and in preparation for the new term.

So, what are the solutions? How can we ensure all young people have a fair chance of believing in themselves and realising their ambitions? Schools have a crucial role to play here but they cannot do it alone – and nor should we expect them to. The collective attention of businesses and universities are equally crucial.

We know that the barriers facing young people can be overcome and we know that with the right support we can level the playing field. I’m lucky enough to work with hundreds of young people every year, and to see that this isn’t fantasy, it’s a reality for many, but could be for so many more.

Last year, our Teach First Futures programme worked with young people from groups currently under-represented at university and helped over 85% of them to progress to university. It is also exciting to see businesses beginning to address the achievement gap through their own programmes, such as Deloitte Access.

And these aren’t isolated examples. Nationally, there has been some good progress in recent years. Universities are turning their resources and expertise towards interventions that are proven to change the lives of young people.

However, if we want to see the achievement gap become a thing of the past, there is still so much more to be done.

Ultimately, we need to look beyond the pupils jumping, and listen closely to the stories and the causes of the challenges they face. Only then can we hope to understand and go on to address the achievement gap, ensuring every child has the chance to flourish in life.

Jude Heaton is Head of Access at Teach First

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  1. I am very pleased that your Teach First initiative is so successful. However I doubt whether real equality of educational opportunity can be achieved without significant reduction in poverty and inequality. As you know Basil Bernstein in the 1970s stated that “Education cannot compensate for society”. I am not fatalistic but I do believe that in many cases this remains true today.