Editorial - Why universities need to be schooled by teachers

UK universities are rightly feted as being among the finest in the world. Their performance in the global rankings by per-capita spend is exemplary. Through their excellent research they push the boundaries of knowledge. They run huge education institutes, massive research programmes and multimillion-pound spin-off businesses. So the process of running a school should in theory be a doddle for them.

Unfortunately, in many cases it is proving trickier than they might have hoped. A number of university-run academies have been told by Ofsted to pull their socks up, including the flagship University College London Academy, once described by former schools minister Lord Adonis as "the future of education".

There is no question that universities should play a big role in schools; after all, they have a keen interest in the end result. And in these times of fierce competition for top-grade pound;9,000-a-year undergraduates, growing your own is an attractive option. Add to that the usual complaints from universities that schools do not prepare young people for the intellectual rigours of a degree and that interest becomes even more acute.

There are, however, two issues here. First, the job of schools is to provide a decent education that will culminate in exam results by which both they and their pupils can be measured; they are not tasked with providing an entrance qualification for universities.

Second, universities are self-interested beasts. They do not function as a group, despite their oft-professed collegiality. They are happy to try to tackle the problem individually but not collectively, as exemplified by their reluctance to take part in the setting of A-levels.

To be fair, UCL was honest about its motives for opening an academy. It wanted, it said, to be both self-interested and altruistic. Its aim was to produce students just the way a university would want them and to ensure that the education delivered was good regardless of whether or not pupils wanted to progress to higher education. But of course it should be altruistic - like many other universities it has charitable status - and providing good education should be easy with subject specialism and cutting-edge research on tap.

But there's the rub. For academia, it's all about the research. Universities value research because it's what they are measured by (and what earns them money in grants), and academics value research because it's what they are judged by. Teaching for many years failed to get much of a look-in, with lecturers repeatedly spurning attempts to give them compulsory training in how to teach. Why would you need training when you have deep subject knowledge (and when you can palm off teaching duties on your postgraduate students)?

Against this background it should not come as any surprise that it is the quality of teaching in some of these university-run academies that has caused Ofsted concern.

Perhaps this is how a true university-school collaboration comes into being. When universities are being criticised for a lack of contact hours and not providing the levels of teaching that their fee-paying students want, perhaps we should send teams of schoolteachers into universities and show them how it's really done.


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