Aimhigher 2: this time it's slimmer

Comparisons drawn between access plans and scrapped outreach scheme. Jack Grove reports

March 7, 2013

Source: EMS

‘New and improved’: Willetts’ outreach plan ‘more effective’ than its predecessor

A slimmed-down successor to school outreach network Aimhigher could be set up to help universities coordinate their efforts to recruit more children from deprived backgrounds.

This is one of the recommendations made in an interim report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access that will inform a new national access strategy.

Under the plans, a light-touch “infrastructure or network” of regional coordinators could be created to “facilitate collaboration between universities” and schools.

The network would target primary schools and work with pupils through their secondary school and sixth-form studies.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the proposed model would help to coordinate access efforts by universities, charities and other providers.

“There is no point having one school approached by three universities while another school has no contact at all,” he told Times Higher Education. “A widening-participation infrastructure or network would help coordinate all the good work that is happening.”

Mr Willetts said higher fees meant there were now more funds available - around £700 million - to fund widening-access programmes, including school outreach sessions, summer schools and campus visits.

He praised institutions such as Nottingham Trent University that are working with primary schools and backed proposals to extend such efforts across the sector.

“We can start earlier because there are benefits of targeting outreach at primary schools,” he said.

Mr Willetts admitted that the proposed scheme was likely to draw comparisons with Aimhigher, the national outreach programme scrapped by the coalition in 2011, but believed a coordinated strategy was needed.

“We’ve always said lots of good things were going on in the old regime but some of what Aimhigher was doing was not effective,” he said.

Unlike Aimhigher, which received almost £90 million of direct state funding in its final year, the new scheme will be financed using “existing funds” - likely awarded by Hefce or set aside from fees to underwrite access measures.

The announcement comes in the same week as another report warning that any cut in Hefce funding for widening participation would have a “disproportionate” effect on newer universities.

The Hefce-commissioned study, published on 5 March, says “a significant amount of [widening participation] activity would be reduced or cease altogether” if such action were taken.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

Excellent idea, just two years late but learning from practitioners is anathema to many. As I recall from Aimhigher, it took time, skill and commitment to create a working network and bring schools, especially hard-pressed secondary schools, on board. Money helped but it never overcame all the barriers. Primary is a good place to start but enthusiasm generated in a 10 year old has to be reinforced through to 16 otherwise it will be lost in the turbulent Secondary years. Lets not be seduced by the photo opportunity faces of young children or deterred by the truculence of teenagers. This work is a profession, albeit unrecognised, not a hobby. Good luck!
'The network would target primary schools and work with pupils through their secondary school and sixth-form studies.' There is no indication of what 'work with' means but I hope it does not lead to pressurising young people to go to University. Many already at University should not be there; in fact all young people should be given a balanced perspective on the benefits of undertaking University study which includes the alternatives to it. As any initiative to secure more entrants from deprived postcodes is likely to be assessed on numbers, I fear the worst.
Looks like "back to the future" -- Isn't a "light-touch network of regional co-ordinators" exactly where we started from with Aimhigher in 2003? And as for Willetts' comment: “We’ve always said lots of good things were going on in the old regime but some of what Aimhigher was doing was not effective, " that just ignores the fact that that Aimhigher was a developmental programme that was asked to try out lots of new ideas. Whilst it's good to see that one Tory politician has learnt something from practitioners, I'm yet to be convinced that the rest of his gang really "get it".
When in opposition, David Willetts commented on the "rather disappointing record of Aimhigher". Now his view has softened a little: "We've always said lots of good things were going on in the old regime..." This is unsurprising, since he now believes that "a widening participation infrastructure or network would help coordinate all the good work that is happening" That's exactly what the rather disappointing Aimhigher did. As someone famously said "U-turn if you want to"!

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