The government has brought education to the top of the agenda. Alongside the Higher Education and Research Bill, a new consultation raises big questions about universities and schools and the shape of the whole education landscape. It is for this reason we are bringing together experts from across education sectors to discuss how universities can take the agenda forward in a one day conference. There is an opportunity to shape the emerging policies, but we need to act quickly.
The focus of the consultation is on providing support for “ordinary families”, those defined as not-quite-poor-enough for Free School Meals, and failed by the education system. There is a basket of proposals impacting on every type of school and the entire education landscape.
What does this have to do with higher education?
There are two key measures in the consultation which universities need to think about the most. The first, and most widely trailed outside the HE policy circles is allowing – for the first time since the first Blair government – the creation of new selective schools to add to the 163 operating in the English state sector.
For universities, grammar schools can pose a problem for widening participation as the evidence is that for all the pupils doing well in the selective state sector, there are many more pupils out there doing worse. Constraining social mobility in the educational pipeline hampers universities’ attempts to provide the best education for those who would benefit most.
The most direct impact on universities in the consultation is the requirement, as part of an Access Agreement (and therefore required to charge the higher fee-cap level for undergraduate programmes) for universities to sponsor schools. The government recognises that there is already a large number of university-school sponsorship arrangements, though it should also be noted these aren’t universally successful. The real rub comes with the proposal that universities would have to ensure that the schools they sponsor are rated by Ofsted as Good or Outstanding.
Glass half full?
While there has been a lot of heat around the notion that ‘universities don’t know anything about running schools’, there are some more ways to look at the opportunities for universities in school sponsorship:
- Schools could better, more directly, integrated into initial (and ongoing) teacher education, and to educational research;
- In the Academy model, universities could use corporate structures to operate efficiently for services such as estates, finance and HR, defraying the costs of time spent on sponsorship;
- Where schools have facilities not available to the university (sports pitches, for example), these could be used by the university’s students in the evenings or weekends.
It’s also possible, through the Multi-Academy Trust model that a university could sponsor a group of schools; this way universities across the HE system would not simply engage with tens of schools but many hundreds. It will obviously depend on local circumstances as to whether all of the benefits can be realised in every area of the country.
Like it or not, the government is intent on using a range of levers for school improvement. There is a drive to make the education system better, and if that means diverting expertise, time and money from parts of ‘the system’ (broadly defined) to help struggling elements then that’s the plan. Independent schools and universities, while afforded much autonomy, are still – increasingly? – subject to the levers of the state. With the machinery of government changes returning university policy to the Department for Education, the school sponsorship proposals could be just the first of many policy initiatives which fail to respect the boundaries which have kept universities in a rarified position.