A higher degree of aspiration

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Primary pupils at Aberdeen Children's University are finding that their future holds no end of possibilities
Primary pupils at Aberdeen Children's University are finding that their future holds no end of possibilities

Countless mortarboards are flying through the air. The mass of black signals a typical graduation day, but look again and it becomes clear that something is unusual.

The 140 graduates are from Aberdeen Children's University - and still at primary school. They have finished two years of activities aimed at broadening their horizons.

The university, run by the city council, has targeted Aberdeen's more deprived areas. Despite its image as a booming oil capital, there remain areas of acute poverty.

"We're working in areas where participation in further and higher education is very low," says learning initiatives co-ordinator Kay Diack.

"We're trying to make it a concept that's not alien to them, make it a commonly used word, and something we hope will instil aspiration in the children."

Many of the children come from families of second- or third-generation unemployment, and have little idea of what a university is. The project offers all P6-7 pupils in seven schools the chance to take a series of modules, each involving eight to 12 hours of learning, and at the end of two years they "graduate".

The children revel in the pomp and ceremony. They wear royal blue robes and mortarboards, have photographs taken and sit through the formal proceedings. Many recall excitement at the sense of occasion that marked the end of two years of hard work.

There is no obligation to get involved in the university, and children can take as few or as many modules as they like. All sessions take place outside school hours, and despite the involvement of some teachers, they are generally taken by experts from outwith the classroom. Pupils from different schools are mixed, which organisers hope will help with the move up to secondary school, since there will be more familiar faces in S1.

Activities include broadcasting, chess, drama, hip-hop, cookery, digital photography, tennis, Scottish culture and traditions, and city walks. They tie in with the school curriculum, says Mrs Diack, but do not replicate what goes on in schools. "The main thing is choice - there is something for everyone," she says.

Sessions tend to be informal, "completely child-centred", and there is no assessment - a child will graduate simply by attending the sessions for a single module. But some do many more. One girl completed 21 modules - a commitment of about 200 hours.

Mrs Diack underlines that those who embrace the university do not typically excel in the classroom. "One of the teachers said to me at the graduation, 'The kids here today are not my high academic achievers - that's really important to me,'" she says.

Mrs Diack sees some huge transformations. One boy politely informed her, amid the proceedings, that some names from Victoria Road Primary had not been read out. The error was promptly corrected.

"I thought, for him to have the confidence to ask so quietly and nicely was impressive," she says.

The idea of children's universities is well known in England and Wales, where it began in the early 1990s, but Aberdeen, which has now had four ceremonies, is the only place in Scotland to have taken it on. Its version was praised in a 2006 HMIE report on community learning in the city, but other authorities remain to be convinced. Mrs Diack believes the huge amount of organisation required is the main reason the idea has not taken off across Scotland.

Aberdeen City Council's well-documented financial woes mean funding for the university has fallen from pound;104,000 in 2007-08 to a projected pound;82,000 this year, which Mrs Diack thinks will mean a cut in the number of modules on offer.

Parents' responses suggest any threat to the university's future would be widely opposed. One said: "Please keep up the good work - Aberdeen Children's University is world class. My son will always remember these days."

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