When University College London finally opened its much-heralded academy in March, Lord Adonis - former education minister, adviser to Tony Blair and “godfather” of the academy movement - described it as the future of education.
Even if the comment may be dismissed as hyperbole, UCL’s new school in Swiss Cottage, North London, is the latest in a growing list of university-sponsored academies.
Yet ideological differences and tensions over university and school collaborations continue to play out between Michael Gove, the education secretary, and academics. So why is this growth happening?
Michael Worton, UCL’s vice-provost (international) and a key driver behind its academy, says the motivations for setting it up are both “altruistic and self-interested”.
“One of the things that has worried me for a long time is that we universities tend to complain that young people coming to us aren’t trained in the right way,” he says.
“There was no use in going to the government and saying: ‘Change the secondary education because we in universities know all the answers.’ We don’t.
“But the advantage of having an academy of our own is that we can build a truly deep relationship, in which every day there would be some type of contact going on between UCL and the [school].”
But the university also wants to help every child “achieve as highly and as well as he or she can do” and ensure that the education they receive is appropriate regardless of whether they go on to university, Worton says.
It is this philosophy that has driven the success of the University of Chester Academies Trust (UCAT), which describes itself as the “leading university multi-sponsor of academies nationally”. The trust currently sponsors five academies and is opening a free school in September.
Colin Hankinson, UCAT’s chief executive, says it has more developments planned, including a university technical college - an academy for 14- to 19-year-olds focusing on vocational education.
“We have a very close link with [Chester’s] Faculty of Education and Children’s Services,” Hankinson says. “Therefore, several of the university’s major players are involved with UCAT.”
Bringing a ‘great deal of support’
Jim Burke, the trust’s chief operating officer, confirms that Chester’s involvement with UCAT’s academies goes beyond simply lending its name to the project.
“Whenever we talk to a prospective school about becoming an academy, we emphasise that Chester is an institution going back more than 100 years, so we bring a great deal in terms of training both teachers and support staff,” he says.
“For parents and students, too, the idea of involvement with a university is very attractive. Each of our schools is situated in very deprived, disadvantaged areas where a history of going through to higher education is basically non-existent. Collaboration is about raising aspirations and setting sights higher.”
But the trust is not simply promoting Chester as a destination, Burke says, adding: “We are trying to increase the numbers not only going into higher education but going to [more selective] universities as well.”
Despite the trust’s rapid development, Hankinson points out that success will not come about overnight. To see real benefits, he says, a substantial number of academies are required.
“As you increase in size you get an increased optimum value range in terms of cost-effectiveness and cross-fertilisation of ideas, which is very difficult to do with one or two academies,” he says.
But Hankinson also believes that operating regionally, rather than nationally, is important. “If you have your academies within a region, it’s a lot more accessible, and there’s a lot more personal contact, which can improve quality. Some of the multi-sponsor trusts, predominantly London-based, have quality issues in some cases when they’re far- spread.”
Michael Day, director of the School of Education at the University of Roehampton, says that Chester’s model is just one of the ways in which universities are collaborating with schools.
Another method involves integrating schools into a university’s teacher training programme. This follows the example of Finland - as noted in the coalition government’s 2010 schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching - where every university offering education training is closely linked to a school.
“I think there’s work to be done in trying to reconceptualise schools of education as part of the education system rather than apart,” says Day, previously director of teacher supply and training at the government-run Teaching Agency.
“The number of [university-sponsored] academies has grown enormously and the question for universities is: what’s the next stage? Do you go beyond management to using those academies as vehicles for your school of education’s work?”
The next stage
Edward Peck, pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham, says that this is the primary motivation for the creation of its own free school.
“We prioritised this very early as being a major strategic initiative we wanted to pursue, but we wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for initial teacher training,” he says.
“We put out around 250 teachers into the West Midlands every year from our School of Education; it’s a major contribution to the teaching workforce both locally and nationally.”
But John Howson, visiting senior research fellow in the department of education at the University of Oxford, is concerned about focussing money on university schools, a category that includes free schools, academies and also the specialist mathematics schools being set up by King’s College London and the University of Exeter.
“I want a good education system for every child in this country. If universities sponsoring random schools achieves this, that’s fine,” he says.
“If it actually makes it worse because some schools flourish and others limp along because they don’t have the cash from the local universities associated with them and their teachers can’t get access to professional development at a university, it’s not good for the system as a whole.”
He says that the policy of ploughing money into particular types of school betrays “a love of the market without understanding the consequences of the relationship between markets and planning”.
“Universities would be better served doing more with continuing professional development for all teachers, not setting up the occasional school here or there,” Howson adds.
Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management and the leader of the King’s maths school initiative, acknowledges that such projects have met with a great deal of criticism. However, she says that schools such as the one being set up by King’s are necessary to fill a void.
“Nobody questions the established fact that we have an acute shortage of good maths teachers in English and London schools,” she says. “My personal view is that the most useful thing universities can do is to provide really good subject-based input at a fairly advanced level.
“The specialist school is a very good way of doing it, both for individual students and as a way of making it a core centre for wider outreach. I think we should be doing more of it.”