Much of the commentary on Theresa May’s speech last Friday has so far focussed on her proposals to loosen restrictions on new grammar schools in the name of greater social mobility despite the evidence pointing in the other direction. However, the speech also contained proposals which would require universities and independent schools to do more to help improve outcomes at individual state schools.
The prime minister proposes that future access agreements (a pre-requisite for institutions charging fees of over £6,000) would require universities to either sponsor a state school or set up a new free school. Sponsorship refers to universities leading the governance of a school, rather than a transfer of funds. In time, she envisages universities running multiple schools and setting up school chains. Similarly, independent schools would also be forced to play a more active role – the exact requirements varying according to size and capability – with the threat of removal of charitable tax breaks for those not seen to be pulling their weight.
Beyond ‘skin deep’
Trying to get universities to engage more systematically in the school sector is not something new. Indeed, this policy arguably has its origins in the last Labour government – when then Schools Minister, Lord Adonis actively courted universities to play a more active role in the governance of schools. His book “Education, Education, Education”, devotes nearly an entire chapter to the role of universities. He describes much of the sector’s outreach activities as ‘skin deep’ and argues for every university and Oxbridge college to sponsor at least one academy. The approach to date has focussed on persuasion, with mixed success. Back in 2012, Adonis wrote that “good sponsors, such as universities… often require a lot of encouragement by ministers to take on the challenge. They rarely come forward spontaneously.”
Analysis by HEFCE, published earlier this year, suggests that “around 60″ universities are already sponsoring schools. This includes a substantial number who are engaged in the creation of a network of new University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Several universities are already responsible for multiple schools, notably Wolverhampton University, which sponsors ten primary schools, five secondaries and two UTCs and has its own multi-academy trust.
The new government policy will tip the balance away from encouragement to – in practice – requiring universities to involve themselves. Most universities cannot afford not to participate, so as David Morris wrote on this site on Friday, “the bulk of the sector not already in this space will need to jump in, and soon.”
School sponsor shortages
But the real imperative for the push towards mandatory participation in the schools programme comes from other challenges the government faces in the schools system. A series of reports published in the last 12 months – including the government’s own Schools White Paper – have highlighted a lack of “good” sponsors and the need to build new sponsor capability. Incentivising universities to become sponsors in this way brings a swathe of new sponsors into the system – including in areas, particularly in northern England, where prospective school sponsors are thin on the ground.
The experience of university sponsored schools to date has not been universally positive. On the same day the prime minister set out her proposals Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette reported that Thornaby Academy, one of two schools sponsored until recently by Teesside University, had been put into special measures. It is important to note that the other school improved under the university’s sponsorship and is now considered by Ofsted to be ‘Good’.
Freedom of Information data from December 2015 points to a further four instances where a university-sponsored school required intervention, with an academy run by the University of Hull taken over by another sponsor “as a result of performance-related concerns” and three other university-run trusts receiving pre-warning notices. Universities looking to move into school sponsorship for the first time will therefore need to take it seriously – with potential risks to their reputation, as well as their finances, if things go wrong.
Universities trying to make the best of any new requirement could look to align school sponsorship to their institutional strengths or strategy. Sponsoring just because they have to is unlikely to end well for either the school or the university. Faculties of Education might be the obvious contenders to take a lead, although in 2014 London’s Institute of Education (now part of UCL) had its application to open a new free school in partnership with the London Borough of Camden turned down. Many of the existing university partnerships with UTCs can be seen as examples of universities building on their strength in a certain discipline – with the potential for curriculum innovation and other additional benefits. Another option might be to look to support widening participation through sponsoring local schools with poor progression rates into higher education.
An open consultation
The proposals also pose interesting questions for OFFA and Department for Education policymakers who will have to develop the detail of the new requirement and will surely want to ensure it helps drive real improvement in the schools system and is not reduced to a box-ticking exercise. What happens if a sponsored school is not improving? What would be the consequence of a university being removed as a sponsor by a Regional Schools Commissioner? With government looking to create a level playing field, will the requirement be placed on new providers?
The consultation paper launched yesterday suggests that in the medium-term the act of sponsorship alone will not be enough to meet the requirement – with an expectation that sponsored schools should be Good or Outstanding with a certain number of years. It would be a remarkable situation if universities’ ability to charge fees of more than £6,000 were dependent not on the quality of its own provision, but on the quality offered by the school(s) it sponsored.
With consultation questions including whether the government’s aims could be achieved through better mechanisms than advice from the Director of Fair Access,there is likely to be substantial space for universities and their representatives to help shape these proposals, which, if enacted will affect many institutions significantly. The consultation (see especially pages 17-20) can be downloaded here and is open until December 12th.