Friday, May 28, 2010

Plan after plan fails to make Oxbridge access fair

None of them work. The elaborate schemes supposed to widen access to the UK's top universities – the summer schools, the mentoring programmes, the taster days, the bursaries and scholarships – have failed. The proportion of poor students these universities accept has fallen over the past 15 years.

A new report by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) shows that intelligent children from the richest 20% of homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%. In the mid-1990s they were six times more likely. The better the college, the worse the figures become. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes the figures for individual universities. I've just been through the spreadsheets. In 2002-3, when the data begins, 5.4% of students at Cambridge and 5.8% at Oxford came from "low participation neighbourhoods". By 2008-9, the proportion had fallen to 3.7% and 2.7%. This has happened despite 13 years of a Labour government that listed its priorities as "education, education, education", and tens of millions spent – particularly by Oxford and Cambridge – on outreach and encouragement.

People of my social background (upper middle class, public school) dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships – most importantly through our attendance at the top universities – we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, showed that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools. Even the beneficiaries should be able to see that this system is grotesque, invidious and socially destructive.

Children from privileged homes begin to creep ahead of their peers long before school begins: the link between background and attainment, Offa says, is evident at 22 months. But schooling widens the gap. By the time they sit GCSEs, the children of higher professionals are nearly three times as likely to get five good grades as the children of people in routine work. Fewer working-class children take A-levels, and those who do get lower scores. Pupils at private schools account for some 15% of entries but take around 30% of A grades.

But this isn't just about grades. Even when children from poorer homes do well, they are less likely to apply to the top universities. Going by grades alone, there's a shortfall of some 4,500 state sector pupils who should, all else being equal, enrol on the UK's top courses. These students aren't applying partly because their schools don't encourage them to do so; partly because they feel that the top universities aren't for the likes of them.

Private schools, by comparison, groom their pupils for Oxford and Cambridge. They pass from the quadrangles of Eton to the quadrangles of Oxford with a sense of entitlement. (Many of them spend the rest of their lives nannied in quadrangles, at the bar and the Palace of Westminster. They then instruct everyone else to stand on their own two feet). 


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Book chronicles how the Gov 2.0 movement is slowly becoming a reality

We’ve known for years how social media and Web 2.0 have been transforming the way political campaigns are run, the way we interact with big institutions, the way news is reported and distributed — indeed, practically all facets of modern society. So it comes as no surprise that social technologies are slowly transforming the way government works.
What is surprising is that editors Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma and O’Reilly Media have managed to make a potentially wonky topic like Government 2.0 accessible, fresh and actually interesting. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice is a big (432 pages), beautiful book, from the gorgeous, sumptuous cover to the breadth of ideas and angles inside. In its collection of 34 essays written by thought leaders and practitioners in government reform, the book offers dozens of examples of a new approach to government: open, democratic, distributed, bottom-up, shareable, data-driven and focused on making “we the people” a reality again.
Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media — the best computer book publisher in the world — carried the same message in a webcast today that proved so popular my browser crashed four times. O’Reilly has been at the forefront of the open government movement and contributes the key second chapter, “Government as Platform.” O’Reilly Media co-produces the Gov 2.0 Expo, coming May 25-27, and Gov 2.0 Summit on Sept. 9-10, both in Washington, D.C.
In today’s “The Power of Platforms” webcast, O’Reilly touched on Apple’s iTunes Store, saying that Apple programmers had written only 15-20 apps for the launch of the iPhone but by opening up the platform (relatively speaking) to third-party developers, there are upwards of 200,000 apps in the store. “That’s the magic of the platform,” he said. He said governments need to take a similar approach, creating emergent platforms “instead of building finished solutions.”
O’Reilly cited a number of great examples (and the live chat contributed a few), ranging from Ushahidi in Haiti to the U.S. State Department on Twitter to the local businesses in Hawaii that decided to fix a key road themselves instead of waiting two years for government contractors. (I had already included a few of these examples in my upcoming Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp at Personal Democracy Forum on June 2.) The webcast should be live soon — it’s worth a look