Let’s call him Matt. Aged 16, he is tall, taciturn and highly talented. He goes to a state school and is about to choose his A-levels. For all kinds of reasons, he believes he should progress, via Oxbridge or the Ivy League, to become an aerospace engineer.
So should he do further maths? If maths is the new rock’n’roll in education, then further maths is a VIP enclosure that fewer than 15,000 young people a year get into.
Last week, I had the chance to put this question to the deputy head of a top private school. “By all means do further maths, but only if you are guaranteed to get an A,” came the answer, as if it were a no-brainer. It was advice born out of years of practical knowledge.
Other opinions are available of course – and that’s the problem. This year, a quarter of a million 16-year-olds will make their A-level choices relying on hearsay, myth and information that is outdated or uncheckable. Those choices will shape their options when it comes to university – and the courses they apply for will then shape their chances of getting in.
There is, in short, massive asymmetry of information in the post-16 education system and the critical determinant is class. Kids at private school can rely on schools that have continual informal contact with elite universities. The result is that – for all the hard work being done by outreach teams in Russell Group universities, and by access teams in state schools – there’s an inbuilt advantage among those going to private schools based on informal knowledge.
A good point raised by Paul Mason.