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Today is the 70th anniversary of an important fair access report

  • 26 July 2014

On Wednesday, 26th July 1944, the Board of Education published The public schools and the general education system by the Committee on Public Schools, which is known as the Fleming Report.

The terms of reference for the committee were:

To consider means whereby the association between the Public Schools (by which term is meant schools which are in membership of the Governing Bodies’ Association or Headmasters’ Conference) and the general educational system of the country could be developed and extended; also to consider how far any measures recommended in the case of boys’ Public Schools could be applied to comparable schools for girls.

In other words, the members were meant to work out how public schools (in the UK, that means expensive independent boarding schools) could be brought within the national system of education being established as part of RA Butler’s school reforms.

They proposed that the schools should devote one-quarter of their places to means-tested bursaries paid for by the Board of Education and reserved for children from state-financed primary schools. It was a forerunner to Margaret Thatcher’s Assisted Places’ Scheme but for boarders rather than day pupils.

Many well-respected books claim it had no impact at all. Not so. As I have argued elsewhere, Ellen Wilkinson, Minister of Education in Clement Attlee’s Government, successfully helped local education authorities establish bursary schemes which saw modest numbers of children sent off to board at public expense. (Radio 4 interviewed some of the Fleming scholars in 2011 and the Social Market Foundation has recently tried to revive the idea.) However, it was all very small scale and RA Butler was largely correct to claim in his memoirs that, as a result of the Fleming report, ‘the first-class carriage had been shunted on to an immense siding’.

In his magisterial history of the welfare state, The Five Giants, Nick Timmins laments, ‘the loss of the opportunity to integrate public schools into the state education system. There would never again in the twentieth century be a moment when that would be at all feasible’. That is not quite true (as Harold Wilson had another shot at it which had roughly similar odds), but these days the Fleming report is largely forgotten.

Nonetheless, this precedent should be of interest to those who care about fair access to university today, as there are some remarkably close parallels: in both cases, the issue at stake is the degree to which the state should sponsor people from less-advantaged backgrounds to attend elite, selective and independent educational institutions on a residential basis.

In a recent article for the Higher Education Review, I listed ten lessons on the three As (admissions, autonomy and access) that are shared between the debates over the Fleming report (and its antecedents) and today’s debates on access to higher education.

  1. The receipt of public spending increases the freedom of educational institutions on admissions, as an applicant’s wealth becomes a less important factor.
  2. Public funding also raises potential threats to the independence of educational institutions over precisely which candidates eligible for state support to admit.
  3. The acceptance of public subsidy can limit the number of applications that can be converted into enrolments because it (usually) brings supply constraints.
  4. If there are to be more disadvantaged students in elite universities, then more schools need to fall in line with their entrance expectations and/or more universities need to display flexibility in their entrance demands.
  5. Educational institutions willing to open their doors more widely to those from under-represented groups have, eventually, to re-evaluate all they do.
  6. Political debates on education can be fraught where the legal status of institutions is concerned but the profit motive is less controversial in higher education than it is in schooling.
  7. There is sufficient evidence from across the education system to justify the careful use of contextualised admission processes.
  8. Bursaries should not be the only answer to widening access and can provide a relatively poor return on investment.
  9. If the financial support on offer to students is to have the maximum ‘nudge’ effect, there should be standardised national rules or readily accessible and comparable information.
  10. Widening opportunity across the board is more important for social mobility than constant tinkering with the zero-sum game of precisely which undergraduates should attend Oxbridge.

As a society, we have sometimes perhaps been too keen to reinvent the wheel on widening access to elite educational institutions in recent years, given that there was already quite a weight of evidence on what works and what doesn’t work. Just look at how long it has taken for people to accept that bursaries offer a relatively poor return on investment.

And, finally, take a look at our new Occasional Paper, which is authored by a former Fleming scholar…

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