Letters of congratulation for poorer top students

Pupils taking GCSE exam in 2010 The coalition says it wants to boost social mobility through education

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Bright pupils from poor homes who achieve top GCSE scores will receive congratulation letters from ministers, under a plan announced on Thursday.

The letters will go via their head teachers because of concerns about data protection, Universities Minister David Willetts said.

They will praise high-achieving students and give them information about how to apply to university.

Mr Willetts hopes the scheme - for England - will begin this summer.

In a speech in London, he said he was working with the Department for Education to see "whether we can better target information at pupils from poorer backgrounds who have done well at their GCSEs".

"This is tricky terrain. With today's sensitivities about data protection, it is hard for ministers to drop a line directly to Joe or Gemma congratulating them on their exam results and urging them to think about going to university.

"But perhaps we can write to the head teachers with a message to pass on."

After the speech, he told journalists he hoped letters would be sent to pupils due to start A-levels this autumn.

He said research in the USA had shown sending information packs to bright low-income students boosted the proportion of them going to top colleges.

Student satisfaction

Mr Willetts was speaking at the annual conference of the funding body for England's universities, Hefce.

He also announced plans he said would allow popular universities - outside of those that take the highest-qualified students - to expand.

At the moment, universities can recruit an unlimited number of students who have achieved A-level grades equivalent to ABB or higher, but the number of lower achieving students they can take is capped to limit the cost to the state in the form of student loans.

Mr Willetts told delegates he wanted Hefce to look at ways of making the system more "flexible" so a popular university might be given extra places while those that are under-subscribed will have their numbers cut.

"For 2014-15, we will continue to increase student choice and to enable popular institutions to expand," he said.

"We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students.

"Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns."

The universities minister said he also wanted the university sector to do more to measure how engaged students were and how satisfied they were with the education they were receiving.

"I want to see students provided with clear information about where their money goes and what they are getting for their fees, rather like those pie charts you get from your council explaining how your council tax has been spent," he told delegates.

He told reporters afterwards that when he spoke to students in common rooms, their chief concerns were the amount of contact time they had with tutors and "why it took three weeks for an essay to be marked".

Plans to allow popular courses to expand were given a cautious welcome by the body which represents universities.

"Universities UK has supported the introduction of greater flexibility into the system which should allow universities to respond better to student demand," said chief executive, Nicola Dandridge.

"We saw in 2012 the challenges faced by some universities unable to fill all their places which was caused, in large part, due to the rigid limits on student numbers, so allowing a degree of expansion of the more popular courses will be welcome.

"But we must continue to monitor whether the new system impacts differently on some subject areas and some student groups more than others, and ensure that universities have the resilience to respond to changing patterns of student demand."

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