We’ll be bring live updates of our event today, exploring the relationship between schools and universities and asking what do the government’s proposed school reforms mean for universities.
In the afternoon of the conference, the delegates discussed the question of further engagement between universities and schools policy. There was concern that pushing universities and schools into partnerships where there was only a narrow definition – i.e. a particular form of sponsorship – then that might crowd out a wide variety of other positive relationships.
Delegates spoke of wanting to ensure that their consultation responses included the evidence of how these partnerships were doing in the hope that a broader definition could be adopted by the Department for Education.
Questions were raised about the capacity of all universities to make effective contributions to school improvement, both in terms of time and expertise. Some delegates called for universities to take more active roles in school policy, on a strong evidential basis, such as looking at teacher training, recruitment and retention.
A question was raised about the opportunity cost of placing school sponsorship within Access Agreements; what would universities be giving up in order to focus in this area?
There were continued calls for a more equal and joined-up conversation between universities and schools, as well as for a more collective position to be taken on the part of universities. It was also felt that there was a gap in the debate, the involvement of further education colleges.
On the question of grammar schools, delegates expressed a resignation that the decision to expand selective schooling was a ‘done deal’, and that any ‘expert’ view or evidence relating to the policy would not be welcomed by the government.
The presentation from Chris Millward and Tim Allen in the morning session can also be viewed here.
The conference is over, thanks to everyone that took part.
The live blog is now closed.
The conference broke into small groups to discuss a key question from the DfE consultation on the capacity of academic expertise to have a positive effect on school-level achievement. Here’s some of the feedback from sessions earlier in the day:
Delegates discussed the benefits of the proposed school sponsorship system. One of these was that universities could deliver measurable initiatives, such as employer links, to schools. Some also mentioned that school sponsorship didn’t just have to be top-down – students also had value, for example by volunteering.
However, many have argued that the desired measurable outcomes of the arrangements should be better defined, to ensure that these relationships will be both meaningful and sustainable. Some have questioned whether the HE sector has the capacity to deliver academic expertise to schools, and if schools might feel undermined by having universities involved. Others felt that school sponsorship could limit other initiatives that universities could introduce, such as working with large groups of schools in less direct ways, working in more creative initiatives at a local level, or making more of university staff as school governors. Many people also acknowledged that the schools who might need university expertise the most will be the ones who would least like HEIs being involved, and questioned whether schools themselves would need to be incentivised to work with universities.
Another broad concern discussed was that university sponsorship arrangements could polarise the school system, between those who are supported by HEIs and those who aren’t. This polarisation could also extend to providers, such as smaller and more specialist institutions. Finally, delegates identified that ‘improving attainment’ is not simply an access issue, and that universities and the government should also acknowledge socio-economic forces which also affect academic achievement.
The panellists are asked what they think about the new grammar schools policy being introduced alongside school sponsorship. Andy says that it is a continuation of the differentiation within the academic system. Éireann expects that these policies will create more competition between schools, but questions why schools overall aren’t being improved.
Another delegate asks whether the grammar schools debate reflects a deeper concern about the structure of education – whether it focuses too much on memorisation and not enough on citizenship, for example. Nick says yes and no – there is value in exams and assessments, but that schools shouldn’t just be judged on these elements in place of the broader student experience, for example the breadth of the disciplines schools offer. Éireann says that once league tables lose their important, teachers will feel less under pressure to just prioritise grades and will feel more encouraged to look at the general schooling experience. Andy notes that there is lots of discussion about creativity, but very little of this is reflected in the school system.
That concludes the panel – the delegates will now go into their breakout groups to discuss some of the themes covered.
One delegate asks to what extent the existence of independent schools enables the existence of grammar schools. Hudson says that the sector could benefit from some of the innovation from independent schools. Hillman says he doesn’t buy the argument that independents and grammars are linked, principally because of the costs of the former. Éireann questions who grammar schools are actually being aimed at, arguing that these are usually focused at the middle classes. Another delegate asks whether there are any benefits to the return of grammar schools. Feelings on the panel are mixed, and Nick argues that less will probably come of the £240m pledge for grammars in the Autumn Statement.
Éireann Attridge says that she believes social mobility does not better measures of equality, and currently focuses too much on individuals rather than broader society. She argues universities should understand the structural problems and home circumstances of prospective students, rather than focusing on individual’s success.
We move onto Andy Hudson, who argues that universities, when it comes to sponsorship, is bring a “sense of value” to the discussion and bring balance to some of the distortions of the academy system, for example financial mismanagement. He acknowledges that universities with relationships with many schools may fear that focusing on just one may lead to the ‘many’ feeling undermined or excluded. He argues that grammar schools are moving in the opposite the direction of society.
Mark Leach kicks us off by noting the differences between PM Theresa May and David Cameron’s subtly different approaches to social mobility.
Nick Hillman starts us off and argues that, on the subject of school sponsorship, “it’s very important as a sector we engage with the government on that question – but that universities should note the opportunity cost and should also be careful to not have a “row” with the general public. He notes that the UK HE is already highly selective, but questions why the sector itself engages with the system whilst criticising lack of mobility at school level. Hillman argues that universities does not engage with issues of mobility as much as it should, particularly given the ‘comprehensive’ system at the Open University. He says that some people have misread the political discussion around selective education, and says that politicians know that the evidence doesn’t point towards new grammar schools, however they may be more interested in individuals rather than society. He ends by saying that bursaries are one of the most costly social mobility initiatives, and there are more cost-effective ways to improve university outreach.
For our afternoon panel, we will be discussing selective education and social mobility. It’s an especially pertinent topic in current political debate, and the Autumn Statement included £240m to be set aside to fund new grammar schools.
On the panel, we have:
Éireann Attridge, Access and Funding Officer, Cambridge University Students’ Union
Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute
Andy Hudson, Kingston Education Trust
As delegates take their lunch break, we’ll be back in about 40 minutes time.
Ebdon talks us through being “strong armed” into sponsoring a school during his time leading the University of Bedfordshire, by none other than Ed Balls, of Strictly Come Dancing fame. He learned from this experience that schools could be turned around very quickly by effective university sponsorship.
“The ball has now been passed back to us to do something about schools”, says Ebdon of the university sector. “I am expecting another guidance letter” from the Secretary of State in the early spring, he says.
Universities may be key to widening opportunities and social mobility, but no single part of society can make all the difference. It requires partnerships and working together – these partnerships between schools and universities will be just one such example.
With that, Les finishes up, and we move to questions.
We have a question on bursaries, and Les previews some new OFFA research which will further underline the limited impact of bursaries on widening access, though apparently it will conclude that some bursaries can help retention rates in certain contexts.
OFFA did not respond to DfE’s consultation as they will be so directly implicated by its proposals. However, Ebdon states that he believes the “intelligence and creativity” of the sector has been shown to make a difference in widening access and that school sponsorship can work – important for universities to demonstrate to the government their enthusiasm for what they can do, not what they can’t do.
Final question: what is the natural limit of what universities can do to facilitate social mobility? Ebdon argues that universities should decide for themselves what the limit of their reach is, and that he reviews this on a case by case basis when looking over access agreements. But universities are now civic centres in their towns, and with that comes significant social responsibility, and so universities “are the most powerful tool we have” for social mobility in the UK.
The position of Director of Fair Access will have substantial power when it comes to implementing the government’s plans to introduce compulsory school sponsorship, as it will be included in the current work involved in access agreements, which are required in order to charge ‘higher’ fees (over £6000). Ebdon suggests that in his time as Director of Fair Access, more universities are being more rigorous in their use of access agreement funds and are properly evaluating the effectiveness of their access spend.
“I think this is third Prime Minister to enter office to think it would be a bright idea to get schools and universities work more closely together”, says Ebdon, citing an Offa report from 2010 which suggested schools and universities should work together in various arrangements including sponsorship. Greater ‘hints’ of school sponsorship in ministerial guidance actually came from Jo Johnson last year, so this is not an entirely new development.
Offa’s latest access agreement guidance took the minister’s own guidance on-board and recommended further development of relationships between schools and universities, including, but not limited to, sponsorship.
One impetus from the Treasury for this policy may be increased concerns in government about access spend being used for bursaries and funding support, where there is limited evidence of effectiveness. The Prime Minister stated this herself in her speech announcing the policy.
We will now take a quick break, before moving the conference into small group discussions. We’ll be back with the Live Blog in approximately half-an-hour’s time.
We have a question about the precise definition of ‘sponsorship’ and how it will be applied by the government and the Director for Fair Access. Chris Millward points out that HEFCE’s analysis of ‘sponsorship’, which depends on universities’ self-reporting their arrangements with schools, comes up with slightly higher numbers that DfE’s analysis, so there is definitely a question about how existing arrangements been universities and schools are classified and defined and whether all of them will come within the scope of the policy.
How are universities and schools brought together? In the past, there has often been a political element, with connections made by political figures hoping to bring a particular school and university together. The dynamics here will change when it becomes compulsory for universities to be involved within a school.
Guy argues that “it will be very difficult” for OFFA to compel universities to enter particular arrangements through access agreements, but we will see what Les Ebdon says in his keynote speech later on. He says that “everyone creates their own definition of sponsorship” and everyone has different expectations of what a sponsor should do: “you should do this… you should do that…” etc. It is very important for universities to be very clear about what it is to be a sponsor, and to set out what they can and cannot provide.
Guy also talks us through the criteria that UWE set for schools which they sponsor, in order to make a robust decision about the best ‘fit’ for them and for the schools concerned. These criteria are about sharing moral purpose, resource, and aims for improving educational attainment.
Judy: “there is a very special essence” to having a universities’ name and involvement in a school. It broadens students’ horizons and aspirations, and points to a whole world outside.
We have some questions from the floor, touching on the topics of competition, conflicts of interest, and measuring success. One delegate suggests that there could be a tendency in university sponsored to schools to make HE progression the only measure of success. Judy argues that in her experience the university has been happy to take a broader approach, measuring success by developing skills and focusing on science in particular. The school and the university are happy with a range of positive outcomes, not just higher education and university entry, even though the improvement in the school has led to more school leaves getting into HE.
On competition, Guy notes that this is a challenge when a university has an education department whose teacher train programmes might be competing with school-centred teacher training programmes. However, bringing everyone together to look for opportunities for collaboration in this area means that it can be addressed. He also points out that UWE’s widening participation activities have continued in other schools in parallel with their sponsorship activities.
Ant asks Judy what she knows now that she wishes she had at the outset. She notes that universities are very aware of risk, and thus decision making can be a little more laborious when a university is on board. Paradoxically, many staff in universities think that running a school will be more flexible than it actually is. Schools have to be aware of curricula, league tables, and the pressures on teachers.
Guy’s key tip is for universities to ‘stay focused’ on the core business of improving the schools that they become responsible for. If universities are successful at running schools they com under a lot of public and political pressure to expand their sponsorship to new schools and build their empires. You should be wary of this, and there is definitely a risk if that if the implementation of this policy is successful then universities will come under a lot of pressure to run even more schools. We should try to avoid snowballing.
Joining Chris Millward on our panel are Guy Keith-Miller of the University of the West of England, one of the first universities to be involved in sponsoring schools, and Judy Rider, Principal of Brompton Academy, which is sponsored by the University of Kent. Notably, Brompton Academy is within a selective system in Kent.
Rider: “I am a great advocate of university sponsorship – it has worked wonders”. However, “it doesn’t work if it is just about governance”, even if the Deputy Vice Chancellor is chair of the Board of Governors. What does work is empowering staff and students within the university to interact with the school, particularly on curriculum projects. Brompton also has over 1000 parents coming in to classes after hours run by university lecturers, which can make a massive difference to the social aspirations of families and pupils. On attainment, the school has drastically improved and is now one of the top 20% of schools nationally, and the most oversubscribed school in Kent and Medway. All that said, it’s a hard graft in the early years.
We’re back with Chris Millward, who suggests some challenges for the government in implementing its proposed new policy. There are a lot of outstanding questions that the goverment will need to consider:
- How will FE colleges that charge higher fees be involved in school sponsorship, especially when schools are often their direct competitors?
- Will universities maintain their existing relationships with schools they do not sponsor?
- Are there enough universities to make a real difference to the challenges that the schools’ sector faces?
- How will the policy be sensitive to the local and unique needs of schools and universities across the country?
Tim Allen of York Consulting has conducted recent research on behalf of HEFCE into university-sponsored schools, looking at difference institutions, different sponsorship models, and different challenges that universities have faced.
Of the 20 universities involved in the study, there was a roughly even split between ‘lead sponsor’ and ‘co-sponsor’ roles (mostly with blue-chip employers, local authorities, charities, and FE colleges), and most were involved in ‘single institution’ or ‘multi institution’ sponsorships.
Why have universities become school sponsors? There appear to be three main reasons:
- To raise attainment
- To collaborate with industry and employers to address skills gaps
- To improve the social capital of the local area
What are the benefits for schools and universities? Well, both appear to have reported several benefits – whether they are precisely causal is unclear, but universities do appear to have played a role in supporting improvements in facilities, staff morale, governance, and leadership. What about attainment? That is less clear, but the researchers came to the view that there was “compelling qualitative evidence” that universities’ involvement really did help or looked set to help improvements. For universities, they reported that their local reputation was improved, and that they had a far better understanding of the schools’ sector and the challenges it faces. They also reported opportunities for skills development for both their staff and their students.
Nonetheless, there were challenges and constraints. Universities reported putting far more time into their school sponsorship efforts than they expected, and (at least initially) were unclear about the respective roles and responsibilities of school management and the sponsors. Finally, there is very much awareness of the risk involved, particularly to a university’s reputation.
Most respondents reported that the benefits of school sponsorship, on the whole, outweighed the drawbacks.
Chris Millward, Director (Policy) at HEFCE takes us through some of the reasons why the government has decided to make universities get more involved in schools. Universities are perceived to be financially prosperous relative to other areas of the public sector, particularly as a result of tuition fees. The government are also frustrated with progress in widening access, and after being regularly told by the sector that improving schools attainment is the biggest contributing factor to this slow progress, they have asked universities to be a part of the solution. There is also the matter of finding a wider range of stable and secure school sponsors.
Yet, as Chris points out, university schools do not necessarily outperform other schools overall. There are some examples of excellence and success, but it does not come cheap – it takes time, investment, and dedication.
And so we with a welcome from Dr Janet Hannah, CEO of Coventry University London, our kind hosts for today. She points out that there perhaps has never been a comparable time where the pace of change in UK universities has beens so great, and when the wider political context points towards severe social and educational divides. These are issues that we will be addressing today.
Also welcoming our guests is Wonkhe’s Director Mark Leach, who notes that the government’s schools White Paper feels like it was released a long-time ago – only a couple of months ago in fact… Nonetheless, there is plenty to discuss, and plenty to debate. It should be a fascinating day.
To whet your appetite, we’ve had a number of articles on Wonkhe dedicated to the topic of universities and schools:
- Time to lead the universities and schools agenda – Mark Leach
- Universities, grammar schools and the week that social mobility went askew – David Morris
- University-sponsored schools not guaranteed to make the grade – Joel Mullan
- Universities should seek more creative relationships with schools – Graham Galbraith
We have a fantastic range of speakers lined up for today:
- Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access
- Chris Millward, Director (Policy), HEFCE
- Tim Allan, York Consulting
- Eireann Attridge, Access and Funding Officer, Cambridge University Students’ Union
- Dr Janet Hannah, CEO, Coventry University London Campus
- Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute
- Guy Keith-Miller, Head of Academy and Trust Partnerships, University of the West of England
- Judy Rider, Principal, Brompton Academy (sponsored by University of Kent)
- Professor Peter Vukusic, Associate Dean for Education of the College of Mathematics, Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter
Good morning – today’s event will begin at 10am. We’ll be beginning our updates from then.