Universities set primary targets

November 12, 1999

A growing number of universities are targeting primary school pupils as potential undergraduates as selectors struggle to fill courses. But will their attempts to raise the aspirations of inner-city children have a lasting effect on participation rates across Britain's most deprived regions?

Those - mostly new - universities seeking to build partnerships with primary schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods say the aim is to improve children's life chances rather than to fill degree programmes.

"We are trying to empower children to be able to decide whether university is for them, to let them know it is not an alien environment," said David Littlefair of Teesside University's Meteor programme. Teesside is targeting primary schools in its inner city, where just 5 per cent of pupils enter higher education.

"We want to drive up their aspirations, and if the university manages to attract more students with high potential as a consequence, that will be a bonus."

John Knowles, schools liaison officer at Lincolnshire and Humberside University, runs courses to enthuse children as young as nine about campus life. In parts of Hull, just one pupil in ten will enter university, compared with one in three nationally.

"We have a whole raft of projects to drive up children's achievement," said Mr Knowles. "By the end of one afternoon here, they will be able to count to ten in Japanese, have been to a lecture about Guy Fawkes, witchcraft and horror movies and have acted out a play. The idea is that they go back to school and tell all their friends what fun they have had here. And I am left thinking that in 20 years, one of those pupils might have come up with a cure for cancer."

Alan Prout, director of the Children 5-16 Research Programme based at the University of Hull, said such initiatives are valuable to the individuals participating. However, he questioned whether they might have a lasting impact on participation on their own.

``It is the structure inequalities that are the real problem. That gives policy-makers a real difficulty because they need to tackle the way social resources are distributed. If They try to tackle the way those inequalities are expressed, it might be possible to predict that the effect will be relatively small and short-lived.''

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