This week the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) published its strategic guidance for universities when submitting their access arrangements for 2018-19. It sets out a key strategic priority for institutions to "increase [their] work to raise attainment in schools and colleges for those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups".
This guidance responds to a Government consultation, "Schools that work for everyone" which was published last September, and which proposes a requirement for all universities to sponsor new or existing under-performing free schools. But while the OFFA guidance just strongly encourages the sponsorship of schools, the Government's 'Schools that work for everyone' goes further, by compelling institutions to do so with the sanction that they face losing their ability to charge higher tuition fees (above £6000 pa). 'Schools that work for everyone', has understandably drawn a mixed response from the Higher Education sector. Although around 60 institutions, including London South Bank University, are already involved in sponsoring or running schools, potentially punitively forcing all universities, including those with no prior experience, to involve themselves in secondary education, is likely to be deeply counterproductive. Although a university's support can be of great benefit to a school, financially coercing this relationship, without consideration for the best interest of the institutions, the local area or the individual learners, would seem at best to be naive.
LSBU currently sponsors an Academy and a University Technical College. Both have a distinct educational ethos and are supported or sponsored by leading local employers alongside ourselves. They are non-selective and reflect the diverse ethnic and socio-economic make-up of the area. LSBU is also engaged in a wide range of widening participation and outreach activities with dozens of local schools. Working with students from year six onwards, we go out to schools and colleges to deliver workshops and talks and to invite students to visit our campus to take part in extramural activities designed to encourage and support their university ambitions.
We have been successful in supporting secondary education; first, because the university has had strong links to the local area since its creation 125 years ago; and secondly because we continue to build on our decades of experience of widening participation, increasing the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university. Our ethos of supporting those who can benefit to further their education is deeply embedded. Even our students engage; mentoring in schools and providing local role models for those who may have no other links to the concept of degree apprenticeships or university. These mentoring opportunities also help support the development of our own students during their time with us and indeed, have led to a number of them seeking to join the teaching profession through postgraduate entry. Our approach therefore fits with our ethos and provides enhancement opportunities for our students as well as the school pupils.
There are, of course, practical difficulties associated with opening or sponsoring new schools, including land acquisition, the need for an existing school's (and ideally parents') consent, and the potential lack of suitable existing schools to sponsor within a given area. The implications, regulatory, financial and spatial, of London's 40+ universities each opening a new school every few years are significant and it's questionable whether this would provide the outcomes the government is seeking!
However, perhaps the most problematic element of the proposal is the requirement for university-linked schools to secure and maintain Good or Outstanding Ofsted ratings. This is likely to pressure universities to end their involvement with any challenging schools they currently sponsor and the policy could even redirect the resources channeled towards wider outreach into a small number of schools with either existing high standards or a specialist focus.
In other words such a policy could have the perverse effect of coercing universities into narrowly directing funds towards several hundred well performing schools out of the 24,000 or so within the UK, redirecting support from those areas and schools that need it most. This problem is only likely to be exacerbated by the requirement to keep adding sponsored schools on a regular basis.
Universities already submit to a number of ranking and quality assurance systems including the QAA, the Research Excellence Framework and now the Teaching Excellence Framework. The risk of a university losing its ability to charge higher fees due to an Ofsted rating in a sponsored school is entirely disproportionate.
By comparison, the new Office for Fair Access guidance rightly recognises that "different institutions have different contexts and opportunities" and allows for institutions to justify different approaches where institutions "already have extensive school partnerships and work in place to support attainment in schools and colleges which might be affected by a shift in resource or focus to school sponsorship". We have previously argued for and support this way forward:
- Instead of coercion we would suggest encouragement: Universities should be encouraged to exercise their own judgement on whether or not to sponsor schools. The government should celebrate the diversity of universities approach and recognise the need for it to fit with their individual missions.
- Office for Fair Access agreements should include reference to school sponsorship being a potential component in any access agreement with an expectation that it is specifically considered as an option, (part of a diverse range of widening participation and outreach provision) and which would be taken into account as part of that agreement.
That way more schools can benefit from willing not press-ganged university partners and there is greater likelihood universities will continue to work in under-represented areas and with schools that require support rather than with those that simply desire support.