Leader: Good faith, yes, but no miracles

Universities know academies have their risks, but they join out of a sense of justice and mission. Just don't expect wonders

June 12, 2008

It wasn't about applications to UWE - they all now apply to Bristol University. It was about our mission to be engaged in supporting the local community and widening participation." These words - which were uttered last year by a spokesman for the University of the West of England, the first university to become involved (with Bristol City FC) in the Government's academies programme - serve as a salutary warning that raising the aspirations of young people in a university's local area doesn't guarantee that you inspire the students to come through the doors of your own institution.

As the spokesman says, that doesn't much matter, because what drives most universities to participate in the controversial scheme is a sense of social justice and of wanting to help their local community. But there are problems with getting involved. Working with co-sponsors is one, and choosing a single school to partner can mean alienating others. Even success in increasing the number of applications to a university from a partner school can bring accusations of favouritism if admissions procedures are not transparent.

On the surface, it seems eminently sensible for universities to partner secondary schools. There is a problem, so it is said, with the quality and skills of some of the students going to university and a lack of joined-up thinking between secondary and higher education. Therefore, by getting involved in how and what pupils learn at an early stage, universities can shape the undergraduates of tomorrow. But critics argue that academics should stay out of secondary education when they know nothing about designing a curriculum for school pupils.

The level of involvement is tricky to get right, too. As the University of Liverpool's vice-chancellor, Drummond Bone, says, universities have a responsibility to get involved in secondary education, but they must not try to control it. And there is also the danger that they can overstretch themselves to the detriment of their primary function. For the academics involved, too, it is a serious commitment, and one they may find they take on with no extra pay or support from their managers.

For the critics, ideological concerns far outweigh any potential benefits. They believe academies represent a form of privatisation of state education because they are set up under private-school legislation and are controlled by private sponsors, who appoint most of the governing body. That's not to mention selection and religious and political worries.

But it is the political ideology that higher education must fear the most. The Government is determined to hammer home its widening participation agenda by whatever means possible. And that means academies. Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, Children and Families, wants all universities to act as partners, which is why the £2 million sponsorship fee was dropped for them.

Of course universities want to widen participation. Of course they want to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds. And of course they want to unlock talent wherever it may be.

But when it comes to involvement in secondary schools, let's not ask too much of them. A partnership can make the transition from secondary school to university more likely. An input into the curriculum can ensure a better fit. But higher education can't work miracles. Unfortunately for many underprivileged pupils, their educational destiny is sealed long before they arrive at secondary school, and universities can't change that.

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