Munching their sandwiches, perched on high stools in a canteen at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), three 14-year-old schoolgirls agree that higher education is nothing like they expected. "It is much harder than what I thought - I imagined it would be like school," says Kealeena Edwards. She admits during her break from a website building class with MMU's computing expert, Conway Mothobi, that no one in her family has been to university.
Her friend Jade Caton can't get over the microwaves in the kitchens of the student flats they have visited, and Sarah Houlbrook is over-awed by the size of the campus and the complexities of setting up something as apparently simple as a website. "This is loads better than school," says Kealeena. "It has made me want to come here. If you get a degree you have choices in life."
The words of this North Manchester girls' high school pupil, echoed enthusiastically by her classmates, could have been snatched from an educationist's dream. The task of turning those sentiments into reality is at the heart of a pioneering collaboration between the City of Manchester local education authority and MMU, aiming to reverse the city's lamentable record of home-grown higher education students. In a city that's buzzing with student life, only 7 per cent of pupils from Manchester's maintained schools won a university place in 2001, a rate that drops as low as 2 per cent in parts of east Manchester.
The partners have just set up the first Centre for Urban Education at MMU. Its mission is to take a comprehensive, practical and research-based approach to lifting standards across the city, and to attracting and retaining teachers. The University Foundation Schools programme Kealeena and her friends are involved in - which shows pupils that a university place in their home town is a realistic ambition - is just one strand. Deputy chief education officer Marilyn Eccles has been seconded full-time to MMU to set up the centre.
The need for action is clear. City of Manchester ranks 127th out of 150 LEAs in England and Wales, with 39.4 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs A-C grades, against a national average of 52.9 per cent. A 20 per cent pupil turnover rate in a fifth of Manchester schools, with many children coming from troubled or deprived backgrounds, goes some way to explaining why 80 per cent of teachers leave the city or the profession within five years.
Ms Eccles and her LEA colleagues believe radical steps are needed if pupils like Kealeena and her friends are not to become victims of the city's difficulties. That's why the University Foundation Schools pilot scheme - bringing 60 students from three Manchester high schools (with pupils from North Manchester boys' and StMatthew's RC high joining the North Manchester girls) into MMU regularly to take part in activities, and eventually to gain university entry - is the first strand of the Centre for Urban Education's work to get off the ground.
Other plans for the centre, which was set up in September, include a teachers' learning academy to offer on-the-job professional development up to master's degree level, and customised teacher training courses to give new staff the expertise to cope in inner-city schools, for instance, teaching pupils who may be violent or homeless or may not speak English. "This is not just another gizmo," says Marilyn Eccles. "It is a way of using what is in the city to overcome the challenges and to co-ordinate our solutions."
Tiny, with spikey hair and pointy-toed boots, Ms Eccles has two years to get the ball rolling - and six months have already passed. As a former teacher and primary head, she is a do-er with a clear determination. "There's a spirit in Manchester that fits with my philosophy of life. If you want to do something, you should give it a try, and there's no point in aiming low."
Pupils on the University Foundation Schools scheme come to MMU and get involved in one of five study areas. Kealeena's group is building a website about the schools involved. Another group is carrying out experiments on fashion textiles to see if expensive designer-label clothes are better quality than others. Other study areas are drama, sociology and English.
The aim is to expand the scheme to 1,000 pupils in the City of Manchester's 23 high schools within four years. All pupils who successfully complete the three-year scheme will be offered university places.
On another front, the Teacher's Learning Academy is already operating, with 150 self-selected participants who have identified areas in which they need professional development. The Institute of Education, University of London, and the General Teaching Council are working towards accreditation of their qualifications up to master's level.
This September will see the start of a teacher's bond, promising final year BEd students a job and a range of benefits - including a travel pass, reasonably-priced rented accommodation and a continuing development package leading to a master's degree in five years - if they commit themselves to teaching in an urban school.
"By that time they will be in middle management and they will not want to go elsewhere," says Ms Eccles gleefully. "We want them to feel teaching in an urban environment is exciting."
A north of England education conference early in 2005 will showcase the urban education centre, followed later that year in Manchester by a world conference focusing on it. This will feature contacts made by Sir Iain Hall, the recently retired head of Parrs Wood technology school, south Manchester, in his new consultant post as Manchester's international envoy for education.
With a raft of government measures such as Excellence in Cities aimed at boosting educational standards, why does Manchester feel the need to strike out alone?
It is a question of focus, says Ms Eccles. The Centre for Urban Education aims to sift out what is most relevant to staff working in post-industrial Manchester, with high levels of deprivation and multi-ethnicity. But these are on the national educational agenda too. London's Institute of Education is carrying out research on the development of an urban pedagogy, with the University of Manchester and funded by the Teacher Training Agency.
There is no doubt that this fits the council's political agenda. Following the city's hosting of the much-praised Commonwealth Games in 2002, Manchester is seeking to remain a world player, this time as a knowledge capital, capitalising on its 68,000 university students - the largest city "campus" in Europe.
City council leader Richard Leese, a former maths teacher, says: "We are talking about how we can use the whole intelligence base of the city to raise the intellectual base of the region. We have to change the mindset about where the future of the economy is."
For Manchester's education chief, Mick Waters, formerly number two to Professor Tim Brighouse in Birmingham, it is an "intense urban environment". Poverty, truancy and failure to retain teachers, he says, are all more acute than in Birmingham.
"Many of the available initiatives are excellent steps forward, but they are not big enough for Manchester. We have to take strides and leaps - not steps."
Manchester Centre for Urban Education, contact Marilyn Eccles at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Manchester Metropolitan University's regional office on 0161 247 2231