Compulsory schools sponsorship must not distract from effective widening access efforts

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The government’s consultation on its Green Paper Schools that work for Everyone closed just before Christmas, and it is now time for policy makers to give serious consideration to what universities could and should do to improve schools.

Even before access agreements were introduced in 2012-13, many universities sought to reach out to school leavers who might not otherwise think of going to university. Since their introduction, this activity has become more focussed.

For example, Nottingham Trent University realised early on that raising attainment in schools was likely to be the most effective way to help and have developed programmes aimed at doing this – including providing highly skilled teachers and subject specialists to help pupils revise for exams in maths, English, science and modern languages. 78% of the pupils who took part in an NTU outreach programme achieved A*-C in English and Maths at Key Stage 4, compared to just over 50% in Nottingham overall.

There is, however, a legitimate concern that some universities do not prioritise working with schools to raise attainment and that others, even though they put the effort in, don’t know which interventions are more effective. Universities UK’s proposal to establish an independent ‘Evidence and Impact Exchange’ is a sensible start, and improvements could be made to access agreements to ensure universities to set themselves genuinely challenging targets. Those who persistently under-deliver on their access agreements should see consequences.

The Green Paper, however, goes further. The government has proposed that all universities should either sponsor existing schools or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to fees over £6,000. This thinking takes universities’ concerns far beyond widening access, which most universities accept they should support, and instead into supporting free schools, which is not their responsibility.

Many universities already sponsor schools, including two-thirds of the Alliance Group. Some, like the University of the West of England, Bristol, can boast considerable success. The schools it sponsors have seen significant improvements since UWE got involved and most have improved their Ofsted status following sponsorship.

Objections to compulsory sponsorship

Nevertheless, there are several problems with assuming that because some universities do sponsorship well, it is the right approach across the board. The first is that not all universities have the necessary expertise. As the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has said, she knew how to run a “very good” university but had “no experience” of running schools and attempting to do so would be a “distraction from the university’s core mission”. Vice chancellors who are less willing to speak their minds publicly might still shy away from taking on the most challenging schools because they are not confident they can turn them around, and don’t want the reputational – and, depending on how the policy is set up, the financial – damage of failing to do so.

The second is whether making the ability to charge higher fees conditional on sponsoring or setting up new schools is fair on students who will be paying the higher fees. Universities that are most successful at widening access need to spend a higher proportion of their access agreement funds on supporting the students they have enrolled. Taking income away from disadvantaged students and giving it to schools would be counterproductive.

The third is the risk that if universities are forced to sponsor or open schools, they may have to discontinue other widening access activities that are more effective. This could be because of the squeeze on resources – by no means are all universities awash with cash – or because it would change the relationship between universities and the schools they already work with. Schools in a local area are in competition with each other for students and teachers, and may be wary of any kind of collaborative arrangement with a university that sponsors one of its competitors.

It would be much better to empower the Director of Fair Access and Participation to have a challenging discussion with universities about what they are doing with the flexibility to approve any activities that the university can demonstrate are making a real difference.

Such activity could indeed include setting up a new free school, as Exeter and King’s College London have done with some success. But if a university can make a convincing case that other activities will achieve better outcomes for widening access, they should be allowed by OFFA to put their efforts into these. If the university fails to deliver or cannot show they are achieving agreed outcomes, there should be consequences.

People care deeply about education – and feeling passionately about something is no bad thing. But policy must be based on evidence not emotion or ideology.

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