When background is a barrier

I have just finished updating my history of Hackney Downs school, first published 40 years ago. Founded by the Grocers' Company in 1876 it was, in its heyday, one of the finest boys' secondary schools in the land. In 1995, dubbed by the tabloids as the "worst" school in England, it was shut down. I am an "Old Grocer" and the history that I have rewritten tells the story of the school from its triumphal opening to its ignoble closure.

Hackney Downs was a secular school. But its catchment area came to include a very large Jewish population, which provided the school with the academic reservoir from which it drew generations of boys for whom the school was the springboard for highly successful careers. The families were financially poor. But their economic and social aspirations knew no bounds.

The ethnic minorities that followed the Jews into Hackney a half-century ago were generally lacking in this vital aspirational drive. This truth is central to the history I have written - it is a stark and undeniable fact that formed the backdrop to the sad story of the school's demise. But it is also central to the wider debate about participation in further and higher education (HE).

Last week's educational press carried reports based on university admissions statistics for 2010-11. These show - apparently - that the number of "black" students admitted to Oxbridge has fallen and that the proportion of "non-white" students admitted to Oxford has also dropped (slightly) to 12.2 per cent. I say "apparently" because none of these statistics differentiates Jewish students. My gut feeling is that if the agencies were to track Jewish applicants as a separate category, we would find that a much higher proportion of "non-white" youngsters had entered higher education last year. And if, as some media insist, four out of five Oxbridge students are "white", then this actually reflects an under-representation, since (as of the last census) well over 90 per cent of the UK's population classifies itself as "white". But it suits neither the media nor the government to tell the story this way. The tale they want to tell is that universities in general and Oxbridge in particular discriminate against "non-whites", and that - therefore - something must be done about it.

But what? Last summer the government published draconian proposals for the future regulation of higher education in England. Prominent amongst these is the intention to make every taxpayer-funded university sign a legally binding agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), whose mission it is "to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for lower income and other under-represented groups".

The school was the springboard for career success

From next year, if the government has its way, OFFA will have sweeping powers to fine any HE institution whose "fair access" arrangements do not meet with its approval. This could well include compelling institutions to lower their academic standards (in terms of entry requirements) to support some new Downing-Street-mandated social-engineering objective aimed at increasing HE participation. Put bluntly, OFFA is likely to require universities to discriminate in favour of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and (therefore) against others. Indeed the government's social mobility "czar", Alan Milburn, warned recently that considering a pupil's social background in admissions should become the norm, and that institutions in receipt of public funds must be compelled to view "social mobility" as part of their responsibilities.

Such a policy must, in my judgment, discriminate against Jewish students. There is evidence from the USA that "positive discrimination" in favour of black and Hispanic students has impacted adversely upon Jewish students, who tend to have higher entry qualifications and who are more highly motivated. If, in future, admissions procedures are to be "contextualised", Jewish students must, I fear, lose out.

What I should like to know is this: what are our esteemed representative bodies – not least the UJS - doing to counter this threat?

    Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011