You report (THES, October 25) Sir Ron Dearing's appeal to universities to "set up units in working-class estates" to help to "transmit common standards of citizenship to excluded communities". This recalls a similar proposal, broached, but not developed, in the Plowden report (1967). Our proposal went further than "establishing a presence" of higher education. It tried to address the root problem: how to provide better role models for children in the deprived schools of the "priority areas".
"Standards of citizenship" are learned chiefly by example. Children reflect closely the role models offered in the home, in the peer group and on television. The result, for those children who draw a poor ticket in the lottery of home circumstance, is all too plain.
By all means let us try to encourage young parents (and give them practical help) to give the time and thought needed for good parenting. However, there will always be many young adults who are simply not able to offer good role models, some because of multiple social pressures, ill-health, worry or rotten housing, others out of ignorance or sheer lack of will. So we suggested that positive role models might be offered if students, as part of their learning experience, could attend the deprived schools, acting as a new kind of "elder brother/sister learner".
Imagine, to take a recent tragic case, if, instead of expelling 60 pupils from the Ridings School, it were possible to send into the school 60 able, responsive and open-hearted 18-year-olds to sit in on all lessons and join in all aspects of school life.
Taking their musical instruments into school they would strengthen the confidence of the school orchestra; sitting beside pupils in hard lessons, in "paired" and "group" sessions, they could sort out misunderstandings, avoid bewilderment, when the learning gets hard. By example in class discussion they would show how much more fun it is when we listen to each other, and, by providing a willing ear, they would slowly show that there is no need to shout, or shock by rudery, to attract attention. In short they would offer more positive role models.
If all higher education establishments were challenged to incorporate this kind of "pre-higher education" voluntary service in a rethink of the purposes of higher education in a democracy, would 18-year-olds respond? The many successful initiatives involving students in one-to-one interaction with children in schools in deprived areas that we have seen since Plowden suggest that the response might surprise us.
We reward one-third of our 18-year-olds, who have the good fortune (and stamina) to succeed in the school system, with the priceless privilege of spending three to four years at liberty to follow their own chosen interest, supported by excellent libraries, laboratories, information technologies etc. In return is it not fair to challenge them to share their good fortune with others? Earlier generations of school-leavers have responded to harsher and less creative challenges when duty called.
Emeritus professor of language education, University of York