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David Blunkett: Supporting the Disadvantaged

Tuesday 02-04-2013 - 00:00

Labour MP and ex-education secretary David Blunkett shares his knowledge on equal opportunities, and how we can support disadvantaged neighbourhoods to make their university dreams a reality.

David Blunkett, MP (Labour)

Quite rightly, there is a great deal of anxiety about improving access to higher education from those individuals and their families where university entrance has not been part of the family experience.

Even more so when whole communities have in the past not had the opportunity of or been able to take advantage through higher education of using their full talent and ability, both for themselves and the wider community.

Neighbourhoods that I represent fall squarely into the category of having lost out badly in the past, partly because of the poor educational offer, linked with the lack of aspiration and expectation at every level, from their early years through the school experience and the culture around them.

For instance, I was brought up in the north of Sheffield on a very large council estate where literally nobody within a square mile had ever been to university, and my family knew no one who’d had that life-changing experience. This made a big impact on me.

After slogging it out at evening class (and being given a day a week from work for education) I made it to the University of Sheffield as a mature student.

Complete transformation

I reflect quite often as to where I would be now if there had been £9,000 tuition fees and loans rather than grants. That is why my own measures in 1998 only charged a modest fee to those families, and it was families, with substantial income.

But whatever the anxiety about discouraging people, we have had some real success. There has been a complete transformation of youngsters going from the north of Sheffield to university. Ten years ago the Brightside constituency was third worst in Britain in terms of adults with higher education qualifications and having experienced university.

Two sixth form colleges and a transformation in the quality of schooling, together with a reassertion of that old aspiration that I found back all those years ago, have resulted in a magnificent step change.

But there is one category of student that often gets forgotten: those with other challenges. I’m talking here about special educational needs, sometimes linked to disability, sometimes, as with severe dyslexia, a manageable challenge that can be overcome with practical and specialist help.

That is why 15 years ago I introduced (£10,000 at the time) a non-repayable personal allowance (a grant) for specialist support, equipment and the like for those whose lives would be transformed by putting them on equal terms with others.

Make equal opportunity a reality

Unlike the Education Maintenance Allowance, which was so crucial in encouraging youngsters to stay on post-16, this has not been abolished by the coalition government.

It is however at the transfer at age 16 that we need to renew our attention. If the Pupil Premium, which provides through the individual additional funding for schools based on income disadvantage, were to be extended, we might be able to redeem the situation in terms of the abolition of the EMA.

In simple terms, the Pupil Premium could be extended to 16- to 19-year-olds, and with a specific top-up for those with defined special educational needs, progress which has been made could be consolidated and extended into the future.

In this way, personal endeavour and mutual support can be combined to make equal opportunity a reality, and to avoid the tragic waste both of life chance and of economic prosperity in years to come.

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