Paul Mason (Private schools know how to game elite universities – state-educated kids don’t have this privilege, G2, 1 December) has succumbed to crude class-based generalisations, increasingly the default response in the private school v state school debate that the media is so fond of. Paul Mason claims that state-educated 16-year-olds make A-level choices based on “hearsay, myth and information that is outdated”, whereas private-school students happily rely on their teachers’ “years of practical knowledge” and “continual informal contact with elite universities”. In my experience as a recently retired deputy head of a large state school which published a successful national guide to succeeding at competitive university interviews and secured 17 Oxbridge offers last year – and as someone who has met many well-informed and committed heads of sixth and advisers in the state sector – the truth is not as simplistic.
The real division is not between state and private but between schools that provide high-quality, personalised up-to-date advice and information, and those that do not. The independent sector has quite a few of the latter, as does the state sector, which under this government has suffered devastating cuts to careers and higher education advice.
I do agree with Mr Mason’s conclusion – the system often does fail “bright kids from non-privileged backgrounds” – but let us not lazily assume the independent sector has all the answers here; state schools just need significantly increased investment in high-quality guidance, especially for 15- and 16-year-olds, for the expertise and passion for excellence and aspiration is there.
• Paul Mason is probably right. Our society and our economy are being deprived of talent by the exclusive access to universities afforded to the privately educated. This unequal access affects not only the quality and scope of our existing and future judges, diplomats, civil servants and politicians, but also our journalists and editors, our senior broadcasters, actors and even our popular musicians. The answer is not to get a bit more information to state schools, as Mason suggests, nor to go cap in hand to the private sector, as our privately educated shadow education secretary would have us do, but to do what Margaret Drabble proposed: get rid of their charitable status. And stop pandering to the veneer presented at interview panels and auditions.
• For too long state-school pupils have received poor advice regarding the facilitating subjects at GCSE and A-level that will help them progress to the top universities and keep their options open. To help tackle youth unemployment and ensure that students receive the degrees and qualifications that will lead to employment, Russell Group universities must develop a closer relationship with state schools and their careers advisers to ensure that accurate information about required GCSE and A-level subject choices are clear, so that students can make informed choices from as early as year 8. Often, by the time students receive this information at age 16 or 17, it may be too late.
Chief executive, ACDiversity
• Bravo to Michael Rosen for highlighting the hypocrisy of coalition education policy and the folly of the free school zealots (Letter from a curious parent, 2 December). Is it too much to hope that Tristram Hunt might agree with him?
• What I don’t understand is why there seems to be no one (or rather few) in Britain questioning the whole premise that choices you make aged 16 should decide your future. When I was 16 I wanted to be an actor, of course. At 16 nothing seems quite right in your life, and the idea of slipping in and out of the lives of other characters appealed to me. Well, thank goodness I didn’t have to make the choices then that kids at English schools have to. I’m from Germany and there we’re made to study around 10 subjects until the very end of school. We choose two or three subjects to take at an advanced level, but all other subjects – from sciences, to languages, politics, history, PE, ethics, etc – are still mandatory. And the qualification gained at the end enables you to apply to any university course you want. I did advanced English and German, but could have applied to do almost anything at a German university: medicine, engineering, informatics, or graphic design.
I feel that giving young people a broad, well-rounded education that will enable them to turn to almost any subject in their higher education has greater value than forcing them to make decisions when lots of them will not be ready (how could they be?), and that could go on to restrict what they can apply to do at university.
Griesheim, Hesse, Germany