School aims to teach pupils at every level from their ABCs to their BAs

An English comprehensive school is planning a groundbreaking project to offer university degrees.

October 28, 2010

Methwold High School, near Thetford in Norfolk, is considering running courses in law and business administration from September 2011 and could become a "national pilot" for more local provision of higher education.

Head teacher Denise Walker said the proposal was to use degrees from the University of London's External System - now known as its International Programmes. About 50,000 people worldwide are enrolled on its courses.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has held up the London external system as an example of how to enable new providers to offer degrees.

Ms Walker, who has received a letter of support from Michael Gove, the education secretary, hopes to attract a mixture of school-leavers and older students to the courses.

She said Methwold was in a rural area where the cost of a traditional university education was prohibitive for many people. The courses will be held in a new community building.

"If we can pull this off it is going to be massive for this area, which is socially, culturally and economically deprived. It will also provide a focus for students at this school who will see there is something for them to aim for," she explained.

If the project is successful, it could end up creating a complete learning hub for the area, as Ms Walker is planning to amalgamate Methwold with a nearby primary school where she is also head teacher.

Although she is seeking private investment to get the higher education project started, Ms Walker forecasts that fee income would be sufficient to keep the courses running, with students being charged a total of about £7,000 for a part-time degree over four or five years.

She said businesses in the area, which relies heavily on agriculture, were supportive, and she proposed tailoring future courses to the needs of the local economy.

No public money has yet been invested in the scheme, but Ms Walker added: "Michael Gove has written me a letter to say he supports the project, on behalf of the government, because this can be a national pilot for the whole country and a model of good practice for higher education in rural contexts."

Jonathan Kydd, dean of the University of London International Programmes, said the idea was viable even without government support, but Lord Browne of Madingley's proposals on student loans - if adopted - would open up opportunities for such projects.

"One of the good things about Browne is that he has removed discrimination against part-time students, so one could imagine a highly viable business model," he said.

He said Ms Walker was a "visionary head teacher", adding: "The culture of this area seems to be that it is actually rather difficult to convince people to go into higher education.

"There is a great deal to be said for introducing people to higher education that can be made available on their doorstep."

If successful, the project could herald the start of a wave of small local degree providers setting up under similar models.

On a larger scale, global for-profit education company Kaplan has already begun to offer teaching for University of London external degrees.

Elizabeth Truss, Conservative MP for South West Norfolk, said the Methwold project was "very exciting as the numbers going to university from the west of Norfolk are very low".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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