24/10/2012 13:14 BST | Updated 24/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Meeting the Social Mobility Challenge: Power in Partnerships

Alan Milburn's recent report 'University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility' draws into sharp focus the opportunity for universities to do so much more to advance social mobility in this country.

Plymouth University prides itself on our commitment to widening participation and strong sense of civic responsibility, and we warmly welcome the report. In particular, the report's call to action for universities to get involved from the earliest educational experience; not just for outreach or to widen participation but to make a real difference to aspiration and young people's life choices.

Ultimately, universities can't solve the challenges of social inequality alone - there is a key role here for Government, families, the community and indeed business and industry - but we can make a huge difference. It is in our own interest to look across our prospective student pipeline and invest in it so that by the time we select students to our universities they are ready to succeed. Widening participation is so much more than just outreach, and outreach late in the day at that; it's about creating pathways for talent to express itself in our society and raising aspirations in a direct and meaningful way.

For some children, particularly those from more deprived backgrounds, taking that next step to university can seem an insurmountable, even impossible idea. Not having exposure to universities and the university way of life through family members, friends or other experiences can make universities seem impenetrable fortresses of education that are for 'other people'. We, as individual universities and working together as a sector, have a social responsibility to help raise the sights for young people and show them what is possible. And, as the Milburn report recommends, one way in which we can do this is by partnering directly with schools in disadvantaged areas.

Here at Plymouth, we're seeing our partnership approach reap benefits at all levels. We are lead sponsor of the Marine Academy Plymouth (MAP), the UK's first marine academy school. In its previous guise the school was underperforming in accord with official expectations so in 2010 the University helped to establish it as an Academy. With our partners in this venture, Cornwall College and Plymouth City Council, we have helped enrich both the curricula and extra-curricular activities and support the school's management through direct involvement on the Board of Governors in membership and as Chair. Recently rated as 'good' by the UK's Office for Standards in Education, the school students have had their best year of GCSE results so far last year with 46% of pupils gaining five GCSE's A*-C including English and Maths (against the Government target of 38%) and GCSE passes in general nearly doubling since last year, moving from 43% to 85%. These excellent results are testament to the hard work and dedicated of the pupils supported by the school staff and its new leadership team working in partnership with the University.

So what does a university get out of a partnership like this? For us we are connected to and embedded within our community and its part of our way of giving back to local people. Through that, we are able to better understand school education policy in practice and develop our staff through membership of Board of Governors. Our staff are energised by engaging in new challenges, of interacting directly with children who may one day have a Plymouth University, or any university, experience. We get to understand more fully the education pipeline and the ideas and expectation of young people before they reach traditional university age at what a university education could mean for them. So it's win-win!

But it's not just intervention at the secondary level that is important here. A recent report from the Sutton Trust demonstrates that the social mobility gap starts as far back as four and five year olds. To ensure we don't fail in drawing out the talent of younger children, universities ought to try and get involved as soon as they can; to capture and sustain children's imagination and empower them to make the most of their learning opportunities. The sector can then look to build partnerships with primary schools - including assisting with curriculum development, bridging engagement with secondary schools, university taster sessions and other stimulating activities that, from an early age, makes going to university seem a natural step. That is why, building on our successful collaboration with MAP, we are creating new primary schools in economically deprived areas of the City , one directly linked on the same site as MAP and operating as a feeder school and another in a different area.

Universities working in partnership with schools, local councils and employers can help raise standards and break down the perceived walls of the 'ivory tower' of university education. We have a responsibility to reach out to the nation's young people to enrich their learning experience and the earlier we get to them and the deeper the partnership - the better!