Should universities raise school attainment? Yes, and here’s why

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The Department for Education’s recent schools consultation paper argued that universities have a role in raising attainment in schools in order to widen access. The government’s proposed method of achieving this is by mandating school sponsorship.

The most recent OFFA access agreement guidance followed this by asking higher education institutions wishing to charge the higher rate of fees to detail their work in attainment-raising in schools. The guidance mandated a new benchmark in this area.

The Conservative Party’s manifesto now has school sponsorship by universities as a core education pledge:

We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools.

The prospect of compulsory sponsorship of schools has not been generally well received in the higher education sector. Oxford vice chancellor Louise Richardson has described it as a “distraction from our core mission”, and University Alliance’s Maddalaine Ansell has questioned whether sponsorship “is fair on students who will be paying the higher fees”.

Yet I believe universities can play a role in raising attainment in schools, and here’s how.

At school level

King’s College London has a positive story of schools sponsorship. In 2013 we opened King’s College London Maths School. The sixth-form has 140 students on roll and teaches A-levels in maths, further maths and physics (with an additional AS in economics or computer science). In our first year of results every single one of our students achieved an A or A* grade in maths.

This year nearly every student holds an offer from a ‘Sutton Trust 30’ university. Perhaps more impressive is that KCLMS is in the top 0.5% of state schools for value-added scores, meaning for each A-level a student takes they secure an extra half a grade than their Key Stage 4 results suggested they would achieve. The student body is 44% BME, 34% female, 31% first generation into university, and 22% from a low socioeconomic background. Students benefit from academic enrichment provided by King’s academics and students, including a robotics club and small group teaching.

However, the school is not only improving the attainment of its own pupils. It is raising GCSE attainment in maths across London. Sponsoring a school has offered King’s a unique outreach collaboration as the school’s infrastructure and teaching staff have combined with the university’s widening participation resource and expertise. Access agreement funding supports teachers at KCLMS to deliver bold key stage 4 initiatives and support teacher’s professional development elsewhere.

The relationship is also mutually beneficial as having ‘skin in the game’ means we as a university empathise, rather than sympathise, with the challenges facing schools. More so, our students and academics understand in detail the A-level curriculum and have opportunities to teach in a different context.

At teacher level

Research shows that the best way to raise school attainment and close the achievement gap is through great teaching in the classroom. Universities generate thousands of teachers every year through their PGCE and ITT programmes, graduates entering TeachFirst, or PhD students joining Researchers in Schools. This population of teacher alumni could be a game changer for widening participation.

At King’s we support our graduates via our Teacher Advocate Award, which builds a supportive teacher network across London. Advocates are provided with high quality professional development, resources and financial support, and in return they act as ‘university advocates’ in their schools and colleges. The richest gains in attainment raising can be made by ensuring teachers have the opportunity to continually develop and university education faculties can provide the research insight and training to make this a reality. This is even more critical at a time of funding cuts for many schools, and challenges in teacher retention.

At an individual level

Any suggestion that attainment gains can be magicked through ‘aspiration raising’ should be met with an arched eyebrow. The evidence base here is weak, with the Education Endowment Foundation saying “evidence shows aspiration-raising interventions have little to no positive impact on attainment”. Steve Gorard of Durham University goes as far as suggesting that aspiration raising may be a “red herring”, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published studies concluding that the aspiration gap simply doesn’t exist.

However, we know that activities providing quality tutoring or metacognition skills are effective in closing the attainment gap. That’s why we’ve invested in developing these skills in Key Stage 3 learners as part of our King’s Scholars scheme at King’s College London. Learning how to learn is one of the most important skillsets we can equip young people with as they embark on secondary education. Universities should develop learner level programmes that are research informed and evidence. We should follow the research base if we are serious about attainment raising. And we should be serious about improving students grades in school, because the strongest predictor of higher education progression is a young person’s GCSE results.

Universities can play a more meaningful role in the wider educational ecosystem. We should do so enthusiastically, to ensure our classrooms are filled with the most diverse and talented students, but also as our contribution to the common good. The challenge before the sector is to use our research base and imagination to realise the difference we can make through greater reciprocity with schools, colleges, teachers and their pupils. Universities should now focus their energies on constructively engaging with the attainment raising agenda and all the possibilities it entails.

8 thoughts on “Should universities raise school attainment? Yes, and here’s why”

  1. jackbeans says:

    31% first generation? Implying that 69% of students have parents who’ve been to university. Hardly a hotbed of inner city deprivation.

  2. ArthurC says:

    More Tory twaddle… Let’s make someone else (anybody else!) responsible for school attainment. Lets make local authorities responsible for NHS performance. Let’s make we politicians responsible for nothing but securing well-paid, non-executive board memberships, lunches with our City chums, and dinner parties with our media stooges.
    Not so much “divide and rule” as “scramble, confuse and complicate and rule”.

    1. John Randall says:

      It is ArthurC who is writing twaddle. The article is a well-informed, constructive and non-partisan contribution to an important debate about how universities can both fulfil their wider social responsibilities and, in the process, attract able students from under-represented sections of the community.

      1. jackbeans says:

        Non-partisan? It’s a PR piece about the King’s College London Maths School from the Director of Widening Participation at… King’s College London.

        1. JulieJ says:

          Firstly – I have had the good fortune to have worked with the author of this piece at another institution. A more passionate and genuine advocator of Widening Participation I have never seen. Secondly, having come from a working class background – gone to university – worked as a teacher – and having now worked at several universities, I have seen first hand how the disparity of teaching practice and student expectation between sixth form and university can result in frustration for staff and students, student anxiety, and early university drop out. Anything we can do to help bridge the gap in understanding and practice (and enable teachers and tutors at schools and universities to better understand each other) in order to retain our most vulneral students (who are the ones most likely to drop out) and help bridge the transition between school and university has got to be for the benefit of everyone; this is not about shifting responsibility – it is about sharing good practice!

  3. Eliza says:

    It’s clear King’s has done a great job to get the most value out of the maths school in terms of WP, but I think it’s really important to point out that the maths school itself is highly selective: according to the admissions policy, students need A*-A at GCSE in maths, physics and good grades in other subjects too. There are admissions tests and interviews in addition to these high entry requirements. And what surprised me the most when looking at the admissions policy was that students who are not on track to get A*-B grades at A level may be asked to leave the school permanently. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly good example of attainment raising.

    1. jackbeans says:

      Interesting point. I’m looking forward to the author’s article on why grammar schools are the drivers of social mobility.

    2. Anne-Marie Canning says:

      Hi Eliza, the value-added scores of the school speak volumes. It is in the top 0.5% of schools on this measure which means it is a good example having impact on attainment. I would also add that the school operates a contextualised admissions system. Anne-Marie

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