Catch 'em when they're young

April 26, 2002

Universities, under pressure to meet the government's 50 per cent participation target, are building closer links with schools to try to encourage even the most unlikely candidates to consider entering higher education. Harriet Swain reports in the first of our new five-part series, Pushing 50

A tutorial is taking place in a seminar room at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. Nearby, Mike Grant, a schoolteacher for 18 years, has just handed out notes to the 48 members of his maths class and is asking them questions. These two scenarios are not quite what they seem. For two members of the tutorial group are sixth-formers at Monkseaton Language College, taking a first-year Open University undergraduate maths course while studying for their A levels. And Grant, now an admissions tutor at Northumbria, is lecturing a group of first-year university students. It is just one example of how distinctions between the school and university experience are being blurred - a trend that is likely to accelerate under the government's plan to have 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds experience higher education by 2010.

Already, leaving school and starting at university has ceased to be the watershed it once was, marking the point at which a young person finally became independent, left home and learnt to study autonomously. Financial pressures mean that more students continue living at home, while pressures on universities to open their doors to a wider range of students have led to more closely guided and large-group learning.

Many universities believe that to meet government recruitment targets, they must extend their role to building expectations of a university education among school pupils and to helping those pupils achieve the necessary A-level grades. This is particularly relevant in terms of attracting more children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mary Stuart, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex and a higher education researcher, says: "The only way we have been told we are going to reach the government target is by growing our own demand. If we are to do that, we have to act much more closely with schools and colleges - and in some places that may mean different types of institutions emerging and an increase in the notion of compacts and accords between them." She envisages the formalisation of existing school/university crossovers and says that, while "a few elite institutions at both school and university level" will remain, "other institutions will be much more fluid".

The government's £190 million Excellence Challenge, launched in September 2000, requires universities to work with schools, further education colleges, local education authorities and each other in a coordinated effort to get young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says that raising school attainment is the key to getting more students into higher education. He advises working with children aged between 12 and 14.

Some universities are targeting them even younger: Bradford, for example, invites eight-year-olds in to see what university is like, while Sheffield sends outreach workers to meet primary school pupils and their parents. For older pupils, many universities run Easter revision classes, delivering lectures and classes on time management and exam technique in an extension of schemes run for first-year undergraduates. Some offer their library and lab facilities for schoolchildren during quiet periods and hold masterclasses a few times a year for selected pupils, aiming to enhance the A-level curriculum and motivate them to study harder.

This year, Hefce will spend £4 million on 6,400 places in summer schools, designed to give pupils a taste of university life.

The emphasis in most schemes run by universities for schools is on showing what a "fun" place university can be. Masterclasses, for example, tend to involve pupils in work that enhances what they are doing in the national curriculum but in a way that is more hands-on and interactive. "It is trying to make it interesting and exciting rather than school-style learning," says James Seymour, a spokesman for the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association.

Summer schools tend to concentrate on the "sexier" university subjects, such as the social sciences and drama, and on practical work using plenty of equipment. And they always involve an intensive social programme. There is, however, a risk that this may give pupils a misleading idea of what university is about.

Schools liaison officers at universities respond that their main aim is to offer inspiration and raise expectations, with a view to lifting performance. Some run compact schemes, holding study days for pupils, helping them to compile portfolios that can count towards university entrance. The aim is as much to improve their motivation - and achievements - while still in school as to encourage them into higher education.

The same is true of Hefce's national mentoring project, which involves training and paying students to spend about an hour a week individually with pupils aged 13, 14 and 15 from backgrounds with little tradition of university.

The latest government scheme has similar ambitions, but it targets teachers rather than pupils. The "excellence fellowship" offers teachers the opportunity to spend a term at a university, working on projects that will encourage their pupils to consider higher education. Universities have already started wooing teachers with workshops or conferences on their sites.

The University of Leicester, for example, will host a free workshop in July for A-level teachers in computing, looking at the A-level syllabus but also discussing university admissions. The University of Newcastle is taking its researchers to school rather than bringing teachers to university. It has teamed up with the local authority and diocese to set up the All Saints Church of England Community College in West Denton, where postgraduate researchers will have a base from which to develop research projects on school management and classroom effectiveness.

Julie Pink, head of the schools and colleges liaison service at the University of Huddersfield, says that, like many other higher education institutions, her university's philosophy has changed from simply encouraging young people to think about university to trying to enhance their skills while still at school. Staff and students talk to groups of pupils as young as 13 about library and internet research, exam preparation, and work and life balance in a way designed to fit into the school curriculum. "You can try to encourage and raise aspirations, but you need to be able to equip students so that they are in a position to be able to apply," she says.

This kind of approach is supplemented by follow-up sessions once students reach university. Ulster runs a residential induction for its "step-up-to-science" students - selected on the grounds of disadvantage and given extra help with science - and allocates them postgraduate student mentors. Birmingham offers its non-traditional students tutorial support before they start, extensive monitoring and the possibility of individual mentoring and key skills courses. Several universities provide extra school-like classes for those struggling with maths or languages, and there has been an increasing emphasis on improving welfare services for students and keeping records of their progress. The idea that young people can be left to look after themselves and their studies as soon as they leave school and begin at university is no longer tenable.

Stuart says that the first year is now often considered a "transition year". "Increasingly, we are seeing a need to spend the first year of students' involvement in university teaching them the skills to learn how to learn because those are not being taught in schools," she says. She suggests that this is because the school environment is too limited and because students with no family experience of university need guidance on how to manage their work and time in a less intimate environment.

But Gill Rowley, research fellow in the employment studies research unit at the University of the West of England, believes that this should not be the job of universities. "There is a lot of evidence that universities are having to do remedial work in the initial year but they are not qualified to do it," she says. She argues that university timetables have had to become heavier to incorporate more directed learning, without the extra money needed to support it, which means less one-to-one supervision and fewer small tutorials. "If someone is not capable of going to a library and looking something up, they should not be at university," she says. "University is no longer for intellectuals and academics. It is an extended school."

For those on the other side of the debate, such as Grant, this is no bad thing. By the time students reach their final year they have developed the skills needed to study at university, he says. But it is up to academics to aid this development and to ensure that universities do not put them off by being too intimidating. "I would say the experience a sixth-former would have now would not be a million miles away from their experience in the first year at university," he says. "We are facing our students and maintaining eye contact, we are asking questions, we are requiring responses; and that is exactly what I used to do in school."

Next week: teaching styles in a mass system

Is remedial work for students turning universities into extended schools?
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