WHAT: More than 500 ten to 11-year-olds attended the Meteor Programme summer school at the University of Teesside. WHY: Only 5per cent of young people in central Middlesbrough go on to higher education. Nic Mitchell reports.
Primary school children have been getting to know a lot about their local university in Middlesbrough over the past year in an attempt to overcome decades of under-achievement in inner-city wards of a town William Gladstone, the 19th-century Liberal prime minister, described as "an infant Hercules".
The pupils have been visited weekly by university student mentors in a bold move to counter negative views of higher education and help demonstrate that universities are within the grasp of working-class, as well as middle-class students.
Teesside feels well placed for such a role. It is one of the top universities for attracting students from neighbourhoods with low participation rates in higher education. Figures show that in some wards of Middlesbrough less than 1 per cent of young people go to university.
What started as a bid to break down any remaining town-vs-gown feelings between Teesside's gleaming regenerated campus and the local community quickly grew to include links with 11 local primary schools and some nearby first-year pupils and teachers in secondary schools.
But why should university lecturers and students think they can help support the teaching of ten-year-olds? And can university academics really switch from teaching degree-level students to youngsters who have not even thought about their GCSEs?
These questions were asked and answered when Teesside University held its second Meteor summer school fortnight this July. The name Meteor was picked because it helps reinforce the belief that "the sky's the limit" and emphasises the theme of empowering children to make an informed choice about higher education in an area with one of the lowest staying-on rates in the country. Just over one in four in Middlesbrough obtain five GCSE grades A to C, compared with the national average of 46 per cent. Unemployment is high as heavy industries such as steel, chemicals and offshore rig yards decline. Unsurprisingly, going to university has never been top of the agenda for the vast majority - but things may be changing.
The non-selective Meteor Programme, launched a long time before the furore about barriers to state-school pupils going to university, has events both on campus and in participating schools. These include science and cultural tours, student mentoring and competitions - culminating in the summer school and a mini-graduation ceremony at Middlesbrough Town Hall. Links established with the pupils will continue as they progress through their secondary education via a BT-sponsored internet programme connecting the comprehensive schools in town.
Meteor's main source of funding is the government's single regeneration budget, and both Middlesbrough local education authority and the government have publicly declared that what Teesside University is doing could help other towns overcome decades of underachievement.
Meteor also fits in nicely with the aims of "The University of the First Age" (UFA) - brainchild of Tim Brighouse, chief education officer for Birmingham LEA. Meteor has borrowed from the UFA philosophy, expounded by Howard Gardner in his book Frames of Mind (1983). This speaks of the existence of the small number of relatively discreet intelligences in human beings combinable in different ways to form the intellectual repertoire of different individuals.
Academics and student mentors, and school teachers supporting the Meteor scheme, understand that different children have their own preferred learning style. So planned activities account for multiple intelligences in linguistics, mathematics and logic. For the lecturers, the challenge was to apply adult teaching/learning methods to a younger audience with a much smaller knowledge and understanding base. Meteor's goal was to enchant pupils with education. Lecturers quickly realised that they had to excite and enthral these children and create a supportive, comfortable learning environment.
Lecturers from every discipline rose to the challenge and provided their young visitors with a comprehensive taste of university subjects, catering for a range of preferred learning styles and multiple intelligences. Paramount in the lecturers' thoughts was the need to enhance the pupils' curriculum and help raise both their achievement and their aspirations. Some lecturers admitted to being wary of their young students at first, but they were ably supported by a team of 55 student mentors and accompanying school staff.
Sessions ranged from politics, marketing and computing to health, sport science and a cultural history class with Cleveland Arts, in which the children built scarecrows from recyclable materials and then attached notes declaring their wishes for the future.
Almost without exception, the children said the high point of their visit was a trip inside the university's multi-million-pound 20-seater Virtual Reality Hemispherium. This included seeing virtual images of their own town from all angles and a VR flight on the yet-to-be-built Eurofighter.
As for the university staff, one business lecturer, who himself has young children, summed up the feelings of many, saying: "With the student mentors and school staff, we had a staff-pupil ratio of 1:6 - what luxury. But we were actually recreating the same learning process we would with our own students when teaching advertising or marketing.
"We gave them basic understanding and knowledge and then asked them to apply what they had learnt. It may have worked particularly well with our groups because the children were involved in a creative process and not over-burdened by a knowledge-based process; but we were amazed by the results and the enthusiasm shown."
So to the question "can university lecturers teach ten-year-olds?" the answer is "yes". The same lecturer added: "The key was approaching the pupils with the right attitude and not patronising them. They could suss you out in a split second. The young people came with mixed expectations and the tangible results in our workshops, with immediate feedback, was very important."
As to the question "why should they?" the lecturer continued: "We often get accused of existing in ivory towers and the Meteor programme gave us a lovely dose of reality. It made us all think of the learning process at a very basic level and how to convey knowledge, skills and understanding where experience and expertise were not very high."
In fact, no lecturer balked at putting mind-stretching curricula into each session, and everyone showed true professionalism in meeting the twin objectives of invigorating the pupils with the task in hand and not frightening the pupils in the process.
The evaluation of the first year of the project has found:
* In the most socially deprived area, the number of children on the Meteor Programme definitely not going to university dropped from 36 per cent to zero
* 85 per cent of the children on the programme said that the project has changed for the better their view of learning
* 90 per cent of the children felt that they now knew more about university life
* Overall there was an apparent correlation between the greater appreciation of the programme and the social deprivation of the area.
News of the innovative Meteor scheme has quickly spread to the higher echelons and, in March, ten of the Meteor children had a memorable visit to Downing Street to chat about their experiences directly with education secretary David Blunkett and prime minister Tony Blair.
Afterwards, Mr Blunkett said: "I am deeply impressed with what the University of Teesside is doing as it is helping to raise the children's attitudes and raise their expectations of life. It looks like a good model for others to follow and there should be an accolade for the university students who act as mentors on the programme."
Nic Mitchell is public relations manager at the University of Teesside.
WHAT THE CHILDREN THOUGHT
Sarah Briggs, 11, Ayresome School:
"I was thinking about being a hairdresser, but I'm not so sure now because there are lots of other things I could be."
Naveed Amanat, 10, Ayresome School: "I want to go to university to be an engineer and thought the Virtual Reality Centre was the best bit."
Tony Lively, 11, Ayresome School:
"I want to be a professional footballer and perhaps I'll go to university. But I really want to play for the Boro."
Lee Davison, 11, Ayresome School:
"I want to be a professional footballer, but the best part of the Meteor visit was definitely the Virtual Reality Centre. I had a go at the controls and wasn't scared at all."
Amy Maxwell, 11, Brambles Primary School: "I felt really dizzy after being in the Virtual Reality chair, but it was good fun. I loved the dinners, the portions were massive. I'd like to do nursing at the university when I leave school. I'm nervous but excited about the graduation ceremony at the town hall, my mam and dad are coming to see it."
Michael Hayton, 11, Sacred Heart RC: "I loved composing a tune on the computer. Me and my friend Adam Wesson used drums, guitars and rap voices. Ours was the best, and it might go on the Meteor website. I'd like to be a footballer when I leave school, and I know I can do sport science at the university so I might try that. The last time I was at Middlesbrough Town Hall it was at a Steps concert, but I think it'll be a bit different at the graduation ceremony on Friday. I like the red Meteor T-shirts we've been wearing, it's the same red as Boro."
Adam Wesson, 11, Sacred Heart RC: "I enjoyed the Virtual Reality Hemispherium as I'd like to work for Nasa when I leave school, not as an astronaut though, as an engineer, in control of things."
Stacey Glorney, Newport Primary School: "I really liked the summer school. It made me realise that university is not just boring and you can have some fun while you're learning. My best lesson was chemistry and my worst was the assault course with the army because the boys wouldn't let the girls try."
Steven Russell, Newport Primary School: "The student mentors were well-mannered and I am looking forward to coming to university."