When actions speak louder than words

November 27, 1998

If the government's quest to raise school standards is to succeed, higher education must lend its support, writes David Albury.

Since the election of the Labour government, some statements from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals may have had the effect of weakening higher education's position by reinforcing Balkanised thinking about education, and the translation of "education, education, education" into "schools, schools, schools".

Faced with a government with a 179-seat majority, the CVCP's chairman wrote in The THES at the beginning of this year (January 16): "Our support has a price." The adversarial undertone of this article, and of others talking of "offering a deal to government", contrasted strongly with the position a few months earlier of a group of chief executives in another beleaguered part of the public sector.

The newsletter of the Society of Local Authorities' Chief Executives stated: "We cannot go on bleating like this. If councils want the new government to take them seriously, they have got to stop complaining, start looking forward, and do something positive."

Since the general election it has been clear that the raising of school standards is the government's central educational aim. Buttressed by the conclusions of the National Commission on Education, chaired by Sir Claus Moser, the government has put a disproportionate amount of resources into early years and primary schooling.

Higher education's connections with schools have, in general, been limited to the training and, to an extent, continuing professional development of teachers; research on school professional practice and management; and recruitment of students from schools through both traditional means and schemes for increasing access, including compacts, summer schools, open days and mentoring systems.

While these schemes have had the perfectly honourable objective of widening participation, they have tended to just cream more off the top - reinforcing the "stretch and discard" culture that underlies British education - rather than contribute to the general raising of school standards.

Higher education's ongoing involvement in government initiatives and policies surrounding the raising of school standards is slight. Of course, many of the successful bids for education action zones include universities as partners, but chiefly just their education departments.

Encouragingly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's consultation document on widening participation proposes funding for, inter alia, the building of partnerships between higher education institutions and schools and targeting by geodemographic techniques (postcodes).

But its own advisory group adopts a more isolationist view: "The question of increasing the participation of students from social groups III to V may not be one the higher education sector can address because it requires action at an earlier stage of the educational process."

Some of the most innovative potential contributions of higher education are through local regeneration and social cohesion developments such as Liverpool's Network of Hope.

But the higher education sector, and the CVCP, could do more to support schools, particularly those with serious weaknesses, to raise their standards. As well as a direct benefit to the schools and students concerned, this would demonstrate a commitment to the government's priorities and, less altruistically, begin to take responsibility for addressing the perceived lower standards of students now entering higher education, reducing the need for remedial classes.

Experience, facilities, and resources could be shared among universities, colleges and schools. Together and with other relevant agencies and organisations, they could form partnerships to address not just progression from school to higher education but wider educational inequalities and underperformance.

The Teacher Training Agency's school-based research consortia initiative could be expanded to develop more evidenced-based practice, responsive to local and regional needs. New and emerging communications and information technologies enable greater collaboration across the education sector, but too often this is hindered by the sub-sectoral nature of initiatives and an unwillingness to transfer understanding from one sub-sector to another.

There are merits in considering educational campuses and resource centres that provide learning opportunities for people of all ages, where higher, further and school education - and museums, libraries and galleries - combine to offer genuinely lifelong learning.

David Albury leads the Office for Public Management work in the education sector.

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