Opinions differ on the most recent education Green Paper, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’. Did the fear of leaks cause the government to publish it early or force them to publish it at all? Whatever the truth, the general agreement is that it is a very Green Paper, with few firm policy details.
Much attention has focused on the new grammar schools proposals, but of more pressing concern to us in the higher education sector is the proposal to require universities to sponsor or set up a school. It is an odd proposal. Universities are entitled to wonder why the government thinks that universities should not train teachers but run schools. But let’s put that aside; there are more fundamental issues at stake.
My sense is that the government takes a jaundiced view of the university sector’s common excuse that we would love to widen participation but that schools are the real problem. The Green Paper has given us the government’s response: ‘Okay, if schools are the problem, it’s up to you to fix it.’
Many universities are already involved in school sponsorship. At the University of Portsmouth, we have set-up a technical college for 14-19-year-olds which opens its doors next year, in conjunction the Royal Navy, BAE Systems, Portsmouth City Council and QinetiQ. But our route will not be the best option for all universities. As Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson has noted, Oxford may be an excellent university, but it has no experience of running schools.
Rather than simply managing schools, there are other ways in which universities can reduce the effects of poor schooling. The University of California operates the Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) scheme. If a student’s performance meets a minimum threshold, and the student is in the top 9% of performers in their own high school, the ELC scheme guarantees – yes, guarantees – them a place at the University of California. There is also a secondary ‘state-wide pathway’ which guarantees a place for the top 9% of students in the state. But the key point is this: the ELC scheme means that some students with a GPA of 3.0 will be guaranteed a place while others with a higher GPA will not.
The scheme is premised on California’s high schools facing different problems and having different resources, that this affects their students’ attainment levels, but that eradicating these problems is a long-term fix (and, indeed, solving them may not be a university’s job anyway).
The ELC scheme measures its success by standard widening participation measures. These include the recruitment of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds or from families who have no history of participation in higher education. Retention and graduation rates are also included. The University considers the scheme a success.
There are manifest differences between the US higher education system and the UK’s, but some universities might want to adopt something similar to the ELC scheme. The approach is not for all universities, but some will prefer it to investing time and resources in sponsoring a school. It is also likely to widen participation in a much shorter time-frame than attempting to raise attainment in schools (even though raising attainment is the best long-term approach to widening participation).
An ELC-type scheme would allow universities to give the government’s a very clear statement of what they are doing to address the significant effects of some students’ indifferent schooling.
But here’s the rub: the Green Paper’s proposals give universities no incentive to adopt this kind of scheme. It would not count as an acceptable relationship with schools. If the Green Paper proposals are adopted, the chances of any university adopting an ELC-type scheme to widen participation are very small indeed. There will just be too many other things which must be done for universities to have much appetite to adopt a new scheme for which they will get no credit.
Indeed, given the resource implications of establishing or sponsoring a school, the possible fall in income due to Brexit, and – due to visa rule changes – the expected fall in international student numbers, some institutions will also have to cut back existing outreach programmes to adequately resource the government’s Green Paper plans. Presumably, this is not what the government intends.
We can only hope that the final proposals that emerge allow universities to adopt a diverse set of relationships with schools and colleges to widen participation. Universities are typically self-aware about what they are good at and how they might effectively widen participation. Any attempt to impose a straight-jacket on them and command one kind of relationship with schools will be costly and ineffective. And as it will be students’ fees that will fund these new schools, no doubt they will be unpopular too.