Newcastle University's involvement in running a local sixth form is an inspiring example of the academic partnerships the Government wants to see more of, Michael North discovers
As head of the sixth form at a challenging comprehensive school, Anthony Stobart strives to raise aspirations, not just among his teenage pupils, but among their parents, too. "When I tell them that their child will be the first person in the family to go to university, it gives them a real beam on their faces. And hope."
Stobart works at All Saints College, in the West End of Newcastle. The school was set up three years ago to replace the failing West Denton High.
It was to be managed by a partnership of the local council, the Church of England and - Jmost originally and interestingly, in view of government proposals to get universities involved in running schools - Newcastle University.
The college, which benefited from a £6.3 million injection of government cash, radiates optimism, in contrast with the dilapidated, deprived surroundings of West Denton. Its airy glass-walled reception area feels more like part of a trendy modern hotel than a school - only the chirpy receptionists are fresh-faced pupils.
The good first impressions are borne out by the results. GCSE grades have improved again this year, with 40 per cent of students achieving five or more A*-C grades, compared with 13 per cent in 2003, the college's first year. Stobart expects sixth-form numbers to double, to about 120, in a year. In the dying days of West Denton High, there were only eight pupils in the sixth form.
Newcastle University's contribution to the school's growing success is not immediately apparent as there is a lack of tangible research projects it has carried out with All Saints. Pauline Pearson, a lecturer in primary care who is one of three school governors from the university, says there is "no funding stream" from Newcastle and the project relies on academics'
"goodwill and willingness to engage".
She adds, however, that the link brings less quantifiable benefits such as the advice that academic governors can give the school and the network of contacts they can offer. For example, Karl Cain, who lectures to trainee teachers, sits on the college governors' curriculum committee and advises on initiatives such as vocational learning in the school. Pearson says:
"The university link is subtle, but it permeates the thing. There is mention of the university in lots of places in the college. People are in and out from a range of disciplines presenting the university as an interesting place. It's the yeast approach - it bubbles through the place."
A particularly fruitful alliance developed when David Burghes, director of the new National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, joined Newcastle academics to work with the school's maths department. His research into how secondary maths is taught around the world revealed that Hungary had the most effective system. Lessons there are interactive, with pupils frequently explaining their work to the rest of the class in teacher mode; and homework is reviewed in class the day after it is assigned. Employing these "maths enhancement" techniques has improved GCSE results, says Christine O'Rorke, head of maths at All Saints.
Burghes would like to see the university strengthen such links with the school so that it becomes a centre for best teaching practice and the first-choice destination for trainee teachers - in every subject.
Newcastle seems to be heeding Burghes's advice. This month, 14 trainee educational psychologists, who are all experienced teachers, will spend a week at All Saints to observe its work in improving literacy.
Liz Todd, who leads the programme in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, says "significant numbers" of 11-year-olds enter the school unable to read. The problem is compounded by the poor literacy of adults in the area. Andrea Satterthwaite, who runs adult education classes at All Saints when the school day ends, says she struggles to enrol pupils'
parents in basic skills classes so that they can help their children with school work. "A lot of parents won't admit to reading and writing problems because they don't want their children to know," she says.
Todd's trainees and four other academics from her department will discuss ideas to improve literacy and give the school feedback on their observations. But she stresses that university researchers will not tell teachers what to do. "We recognise that the school has its own ideas, but we might remind them of a few things," she says.
Newcastle's most effective and visible contribution to raising the aspirations of All Saints pupils seems to be its mentoring programme, in which undergraduates visit the college to discuss the work and ambitions of sixth-formers and to help the teachers.
Amy Quinn, 16, who is in the first year of media, film and business studies A levels, says: "The more I spoke to the mentors about university life, the more I became interested in it. They don't just tell you about the advantages, they inform you about the disadvantages and tell you ways round them." Mentors have offered her advice on finance and housing, as well as on courses and social life.
Like Amy, Ben Benson, a 17-year-old sixth-former, has been on organised trips to Newcastle and other universities. He intends to apply to Newcastle to study - the university will look favourably on applications from All Saints pupils.
Amy, who is the first person in her family to contemplate entering university, says her parents are "proud and supportive". All Saints interviews parents before accepting their children into the sixth form to reinforce the message that their support is vital to their child's success.
Stobart says interaction with university students aids pupils "in ways that we can't", especially in boosting their confidence by coaching them in interview techniques. "Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the confidence that traditional middle-class students have during interviews."
Stobart, the first person in his family to go to university, says finance is a bigger obstacle to many youngsters on the road to higher education.
"For many of the kids, there's a need to get a job and contribute at home."
Nevertheless, one mentor working at the school believes he is making a difference. Tom Rogers, an economics and maths student at Newcastle, says: "Our role is not really to get them the grades for higher education, we're there to raise aspirations. It's about giving the perception that education is of value."
So how do Newcastle's academics intend to build on these initial links? Pearson says the school is about to hear whether its application to become a business and enterprise college has succeeded.
The university has given £10,000 to fund the bid and its business school is primed to provide All Saints with expertise for courses in subjects such as entrepreneurialism and self-employment, as well to advise on undergraduate business studies.
There are also plans for the school to become a further education centre.
David Scott, the new headmaster of All Saints, is in no doubt that the increasing links with Newcastle University are bearing fruit. "In this area, many pupils have a very low self-belief. They really do believe that they are at the bottom of the pile and anything they do is based on that,"
"For them - and their parents - to see the university taking a real interest in the school and community is a positive message."
The number of UK universities with links to secondary schools is growing. Already, two institutions are sponsoring new academies with the aim of widening participation in higher education.
Brunel University and University College London have joined the Government's academies scheme, and four other universities are in discussions to do the same, the Department for Education and Skills says.
Brunel's technical academy for 16 to 19-year-olds is on course to open in September 2007, says Mansoor Sahadi, acting vice-chancellor. The HSBC Education Trust is providing £1.2 million of its £17 million cost.
Sahadi says academy students will use Brunel's libraries, science labs, engineering workshops and sports facilities. They will also enjoy close links with academics. "There will be a significant synergy and interest in making sure pupils benefit from the latest thinking in educational pedagogy. We want to inspire academy students to go into higher education. I believe it will work well."
Sahadi estimates that 60 per cent of the academy's students will go on to higher education, with half of them choosing Brunel.
He says the link will give Brunel's admissions tutors valuable insight into the potential of academy students applying to the university.