Lining up for university

The OU has introduced a new concept to bridge the gap between school and university

Jean McLeish

The books are impenetrable, the tutors unapproachable. You have mould in your flat, work 20 hours a week in a pub to repay an eye-watering loan and cannot understand the title of your latest essay assignment. On top of that, you're out clubbing till 4am.

Starting college or university can be a stressful experience - the parents are hundreds of miles away and are no help at all with the essay on Balzac. But help is at hand. The Open University has introduced a new concept to bridge the gap between school and university.

Sixth-year pupils all over Scotland are getting an insight into university education long before Freshers' Week. They can take university courses alongside their school work, thanks to the university's Young Applicants in Schools Scheme. YASS was piloted in 10 Highland schools last academic year and is running in 12 local authorities.

YASS offers a wide range of subjects such as geology, astronomy, biochemistry, engineering, law and web design, and pupils work on their own on subjects usually unavailable at school.

Inverness High took part in the pilot and headteacher Ritchie Cunningham is enthusiastic about its merits. Three pupils did it last year and another two are studying OU courses this year. He likes the scheme because it extends the curriculum available to sixth years and helps them work independently. "They can see a bit more of what further and higher education is about. They had to be reasonably well motivated, but they were all in sixth year, so they were interested enough to opt for it. And the materials are very good," he says.

"I liked the idea that it was finished by the end of January as it frees them up for their Highers, but it keeps them busy in the earlier part of the year."

Victoria Howard, 18, took part in the pilot last year and is now studying business management at Inverness College. "It was hard at first to get your head round not having someone there telling you what to do. But it became really easy, once you figured out you had loads of help at hand," she says. "We had an online service with tutors. We used that a lot. Anything you had a problem with, you just emailed them and they were sharp getting back to you."

Victoria studied Molecules, Medicine and Drugs with another two sixth-year students, Rebecca McGivern and Kerry MacIver. Rebecca took the course because she was interested in nursing and Kerry, like Victoria, had a general interest in the topic. "We all got together and set the same time aside to do it and we had a common room where we were able to study," says Victoria. "I just did it for experience. I had done chemistry before and I wanted to do it again - it was just something for pleasure really."

Another Highland pupil, Stacy Anderson, is studying pharmacy at Strathclyde University after taking the OU option on Molecules, Medicine and Drugs during the pilot year at Dornoch Academy. "Doing the Open Uni course, learning about different drugs, has made me want to go into that area of work. It's definitely been useful, and it was good to get used to working by yourself, because you don't really get any practice at that at school," she says.

Pupils who decide to continue their studies with the Open University can count the module they have passed at school towards their degree. The scheme runs successfully with 400 state and independent schools in England and Wales. Early indications are that students who have taken the OU course are more likely to succeed at university.

Lucy Macleod, depute director at the Open University in Scotland, who developed the Scottish scheme, says feedback from the pilot was very positive. "The ability to use the scheme to extend the range of subjects that schools are able to offer is clearly a real bonus for schools in Scotland's remote and rural communities. However, it is equally beneficial to urban schools," she says.

"YASS provides opportunities for students with particular ambitions or whose gifts and talents lie outside the normal range of the curriculum."

Mr Cunningham has two pupils on the OU scheme this year. Emily Ross, 17, is also studying Molecules, Medicines and Drugs. "I'm hoping to do something with science when I go to university - hopefully forensic science," says Emily, who spends three to four hours a week on the OU course study.

"It teaches you to be self-motivated. You have to push yourself because there's no one to tell you when to have stuff done by. You just do it yourself and it's good for that."

Another sixth-year student, Garry MacKenzie, 17, is studying the OU course on Design and the Web. "The course takes you through the basics and starts to build on the more advanced techniques behind creating websites. I had done some as a hobby, so it was quite easy to get to grips with it to begin with," he says. "But I definitely have started learning new things. I am hoping to get into some field to do with computing, I'm not sure which area. I like fixing computer problems, so the tech support side would be interesting."

He thinks the courses are a really good idea: "It gives people who are making the jump from high school on to university a half-way point to see what it's like and if it's really for them or not."

Schools and authorities interested in finding out more about YASS E:

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Jean McLeish

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