College without leaving high school: a radical vision for higher delivery

Simon Baker hears a headteacher's plans to offer degree courses from her rural secondary school

January 6, 2011

Universities, schools and colleges are stuck in "isolated silos" chasing targets while their students and pupils miss out on the benefits of them cooperating over qualifications and staff training.

That is the view of Denise Walker, a headteacher at a remote comprehensive school who is embarking on a groundbreaking project that has the potential to radically alter the provision of higher and further education in rural areas.

Under her plans - first reported in Times Higher Education last October - Ms Walker hopes to offer part-time degree courses accredited by the University of London's external programme at her school near Thetford in Norfolk.

It is hoped that the scheme at Methwold High School, due to begin this September, can provide a viable alternative for school-leavers and mature students in an area where a university education is seen as out of reach, both culturally and financially.

By using the London system, the project would avoid the costs and bureaucracy often associated with partnership and franchising arrangements between universities and further education colleges. The result could be a whole degree course provided for only £7,000.

From A to BA

Ms Walker, who is also headteacher of a nearby primary school that plans to amalgamate with Methwold, has a vision of creating a complete "learning hub" where teachers and part-time tutors may become skilled at delivering different levels of education.

"The problem with the education system over the past decade is that we have increasingly been working in isolated silos where we're obsessed with results and targets instead of working together to improve children's opportunities," she said.

"We have to go back towards the fundamentals of what education is actually about - and we can do this through universities, schools and colleges working together and learning from each other. For instance, there is so much that teachers in a school can learn from university tutors and vice versa."

The first University of London course being offered is expected to be a bachelor's level programme in business administration. This will be complemented by sports-related foundation degrees provided through an agreement with Loughborough College.

There is also scope for postgraduate courses - for the past six years Ms Walker and a colleague have taught staff, free of charge, a master's degree in education accredited by Anglia Ruskin University. Eleven have graduated so far.

Helping to implement her vision of multi-layered education is Duncan Harris, former director of an MBA at Royal Holloway, University of London provided through the University of London external system - now known as the International Programmes.

To deliver the degrees at Methwold, Dr Harris has set up a company structure that will be kept separate from the school. Evening seminars will be delivered in a new community building, leased to the company. Tutors with business experience will be sought from local firms.

It could be magic

Dr Harris said the project would become "magical" if it could give something back to local industries by training people to become the managers of the future.

"One sees heartbroken young people who miss out on university places, and we need to be able to offer them an alternative," he said.

Later this month, Dr Harris and Ms Walker will brief David Willetts, the universities and science minister, on the project.

Mr Willetts and Michael Gove, the education secretary, can be expected to watch the Methwold model closely. It fits with the coalition government's ideas on community empowerment, and Mr Gove has already written to Ms Walker about the potential for it to become a national pilot - although specific public funding is not being offered at present.

However, the scheme has no political allegiance. Both Ms Walker and Dr Harris say they are simply passionate about improving the education system in rural Norfolk. It will be for others to decide if the model can be applied elsewhere, they say. "I am not trying to say that our solution is right for everyone. But I do think we have to look again at what the whole role of education is," Dr Harris said.

He added that it was "necessary" to engage with the government on such a pioneering idea. "I don't think one can operate outside that system, and we are in a position where we can influence things so that has to be right."

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