The Government said in its recent Green Paper that it wants all universities either to sponsor existing schools or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees.
In addition to, but not instead of, the above requirements, the government said that universities could consider:
- supporting schools through being a member of the governing body or academy trust board;
- assisting with curriculum design, mentoring of school pupils, and other educational support; and
- provision of human resources, teaching capacity (for example in A-level STEM subjects), and finance support.
‘In addition to driving attainment, we could ask universities to consider taking into account geography, the number of good school places or higher education participation rates when deciding where to focus their energies’.
This proposal doesn’t even look good on paper.
It is not the business of universities to run schools . Besides, there is no evidence that they are any good at it. Why would they be? Even specialist organisations that run schools as their core business find setting up, or sponsoring, a new school, a challenging business. A number of Universities have tried, and to say that their record is patchy is an understatement.
If a University wants to set up a new school then it needs to make a compelling business case for it, with a rigorous risk assessment attached. Otherwise we will have more failed ventures on our hands, that are wasteful , damaging to the institutions involved , and , most importantly, hugely damaging to pupils.
As one insider put it to to me ‘ In what other sector could you imagine being required to do something you have no experience of in order to be able to ,or allowed to, develop and market your core business?’
Good leadership ,and above all high quality teachers and teaching, are at the heart of every good school . But , who with their hand on their heart, can honestly say that these are currently the perceived strengths of our Higher Education Sector ?Indeed one of the major motivating factors behind the Higher Education and Research Bill was the poor quality of teaching in too many universities . So, the government is now actively incentivising institutions , many with poor quality teachers and teaching, to set up or sponsor schools… really?
Of course, the HE Sector could , and should, support schools and pupils and add value in various ways. There are many partnership programmes up and running already. This engagement between the HE sector and schools though should be informed by hard evidence of what works and is most effective. Some Access programmes could be better structured and evaluated, for example but there is plenty of sound practice to be built on too. Student progression, transition (and careers guidance), to higher education is an area where universities can do much more. Curriculum and professional development are two other areas , as well as those mentioned above in the Green paper.
But forcing a university to set up or sponsor a school in order for it to raise its fees makes no sense. It could also do a lot of harm.
A much more flexible, evidential approach is required from the government and one should pray that this will be reflected in the eventual proposals that come out of the consultation process.