Dear Nadhim Zahawi, do you think curbs on university entrance will be levelling up? | Michael Rosen

When we look into the fish bowl of politics, it’s hard for us on the outside to see where policy comes from. I read articles that describe new proposals coming from the Department for Education, but have no real idea what this means. We are told what “the DfE said …” and “the government’s intention”. I might guess this involves you. But there is something foggy and mystifying in the way education policies emerge anonymously and come blinking into the light of day.

I was trying to decipher all this in relation to the idea to introduce minimum GCSE grade requirements to qualify for a student loan to study at university. One proposal is for a minimum grade in English and maths.

I’m glad to say that this has already received quite a bashing, from university chiefs and others. Sir Peter Lampl, the executive chair of the Sutton Trust education charity, said: “The introduction of any minimum grade requirement is always going to have the biggest impact on the poorest young people, as they are more likely to have lower grades because of the disadvantages they have faced in their schooling.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that restricting loans in this way would have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority students as well as those who had received free school meals. These thoughts were echoed by the NUS, the University Alliance and the Million Plus Group.

Even the DfE’s own equality impact assessment found that restricting access to loans “would disproportionately affect students who are black and from ethnic minority groups”.

Strangely, though, you weren’t mentioned in these articles, suggesting that your not-so-cunning method is to sit on the sidelines watching the anonymous authors of a proposal like this fly their kite. If all goes well, you step into the studio lights, presenting us with a nicely polished policy as if it’s another great achievement of this government. If it’s a duffer, you disown it and claim it was only a draft document anyway.

Perhaps the rails are already being laid down for a backtrack, should it be needed. Another anonymous DfE spokesperson is quoted as saying, “We have not proposed to bar anyone from going to university: rather, we are starting a conversation on minimum entry requirements …”

Excuse the smile on my face. Anyone with any memory of whatever has come from the DfE in the past 30 years knows that it is rarely the opening lines of a conversation. Instead, schools, teachers, parents and students have been issued with diktat after diktat on everything from 10-year-olds having to learn the subjunctive mood to creating bonanzas for academy bosses.

It will be interesting to see what you and these faceless people at the DfE do with the wave of hostility that this plan has attracted. Your consultation ended on 6 May. Will you listen or ignore?

Here is my own imperial two penn’orth. First, there is something immoral about hitting people’s wallets as a way of making education policy. If you and your department think minimum grades are such a great idea, why not make it an entry requirement? Why introduce the ability to pay into the equation? It smacks of making exceptions for rich kids. Levelling up? I don’t think so.

My other thought concerns the wishful idea that there must be a kind of litmus test qualification that can predict success or failure further down the line. For generations of us this was the “verbal reasoning” test that was part of the 11-plus. In order to guarantee (some said fiddle) the predictability of the test, we were put into ability streams before we sat the test and then into different types of schools depending on our scores in the tests. Now here we are again with a notion that having English and maths at GCSE will guarantee that a student will get a degree. Or put it the other way, if they don’t have those GCSEs they won’t last the course.

This is a shot below the bows at many young people who have aptitudes that don’t fit the template of those two subjects. I’ve known students who are highly capable at science, computing, maths and engineering but who struggle with English. Similarly, I’ve known people (I’m one) who can cope extremely well with the arts and humanities for whom maths is a hurdle. For the record, I got a fail for my mock O-level maths and it was only the intervention of a colleague of my dad, who set me work based on the maths textbooks he wrote, that got me over the line – just.

Many people less privileged than me would have failed. Oh, hang on … that’s what this policy is for, isn’t it?

Yours, Michael Rosen