What does the Journey to a Million mean for the school sector?

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Those of us of a certain age can too easily forget what a significant moment it is for a young person to step into higher education. And it’s even more so if you’re from a family in which ‘going to university’ is what happens to other people, other families, not you or yours.

Many years ago, as headteacher of a proudly comprehensive school in Suffolk, I welcomed a new bright-eyed 14-year-old student. Let’s call her Ellie.

“Any thoughts on what you’d like to do in the future, Ellie?” I asked her on her first day.

“Yes,” she said. “I want to be a surgeon”.

Ellie was from a tough background — an alcoholic father, a loving but fraught mother, few resources, certainly no tradition of higher education in the family.

But so it was that through the following years of good teaching, supportive tutoring and a rich range of extra-curricular sport, music, and leadership activities, Ellie gained the grades to go to Oxford to study medicine.

And on the day she got her A-level results, Ellie’s mum looked at me. I said: “She’s done brilliantly, hasn’t she?”

“Yes,” said her mother. “But I’m losing my daughter, aren’t I?”

Here, for this family, higher education wasn’t part of what their family had ever done. It was a step into an unknowable world. But it was one which a team of teachers and support staff had helped Ellie to navigate her way towards.

But I realised then — in rural Suffolk — how much we needed to do to tell the story of higher education, to explain why it’s such a powerful stepping-stone not just into a career, but into a rewarding life as a young adult.

It’s a reminder, if we needed it, that our work in schools and colleges isn’t just in supporting students in their choices, but supporting parents in navigating a brave new world. That sense of pastoral care — of attending to the humanity of those big next steps into new institutions — becomes ever more important. Because now there’s a certain scaling up to do. 

Diversifying the journey

We are on that UCAS Journey to a Million. Currently, around 750,000 undergraduate applications are presently processed by UCAS every year, with UCAS projecting that this will be expanded this further — potentially a million applicants by 2030. This is an exciting challenge.

In my five-and-a-half years as General Secretary of ASCL, I’ve continued to argue the case for our more traditional routes into university — the three or four A-levels that student like Ellie take.

But we are also deeply interested — as UCAS is in diversifying the journey to higher education, of giving more status to the alternative pathways provided often by our further education colleges.

So here are three suggestions of how our landscape may need to shift.

Advocating for the broader value of higher education

First, I suspect we’ll need to get ever better in our schools and colleges at telling the story of higher education, resisting the irksome utilitarian narrative that it’s purely about which job you finally get, how much more money you might earn. 

Stepping from life at home to the curated independence that the best institutions ensure is an important rite of passage. It builds a sense of self, of resourcefulness, of preparing to take a fuller place as a rounded citizen. We should continue to articulate the value of higher education, and not allow cost-driven arguments to dominate.

Protecting qualification variety

Next, we must continue to campaign for those qualifications so often disparaged or misunderstood by politicians — such as BTECs or Cambridge Nationals. Our experience is that for thousands of young people, these qualifications provide the essential stepping stone into the course of their choice in higher education. Dismantling them will undermine the government’s so-called levelling up agenda, and leave many young people who were on the cusp of progression to HE feeling abandoned.

Working collaboratively across the sector to support successful transitions

And finally, sometimes the worlds of schools and colleges and higher education institutions can feel hermetically sealed one from another. With UCAS’s projected Journey to a Million, transition between parts of the sector become more important, we must share our insights into appropriate pathways for young people who may too easily go unnoticed. In our schools and colleges, we need to get better at signposting young people into an appropriate higher education course for them. But then perhaps we need to get better at telling that young person’s retrospective story of where they came from, what they are doing, and what their aims are. Closer links and creative ways of illuminating individuals’ stories are going to be ever more important. 

As a trade union representing the leaders who oversee so many of our young people aged 4-18, ASCL is keen to work in closer partnership with everyone in higher education. We share your aspirations for the life-enhancing opportunities provided by a diversity of post-18 progression.

So, well done to UCAS on this sense of forward-thinking. We and our members look forward to playing our role as part of its success.

Geoff Barton

General Secretary, The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)


Geoff Barton is General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, a trade union representing more than 22,000 educational leaders from all types of schools & colleges across the United Kingdom. Prior to this, for fifteen years he was headteacher at King Edward VI School in Suffolk, an 11-18 comprehensive school of 1600 students.

Geoff attended Walton High School, a comprehensive school in Stafford (1974-81); read English and Linguistics at Lancaster University (1981-84); then trained as a teacher at Leicester University (1984-5). He has taught in Leeds, York, and Suffolk.

Geoff has written and edited more than 100 books on literature, grammar and literacy. He is a writer for many publications, and a regular commentator in the media on educational matters. He is patron of the English & Media Centre, a Founding Fellow of the English Association, and a trustee of the Pearson National Teaching Awards, which celebrates the work of teachers and other staff working in education.

He tweets as @RealGeoffBarton.