Higher education is the goooaaal!

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Almost 300 schools are working with universities in the west to win over primary as well as secondary pupils to the idea that post-school courses are for them as much as anyone, Douglas Blane reports

Since earliest times the University of Glasgow has seemed a daunting place to children, although the reasons changed as the centuries passed.

Once stern disciplinarians, its staff now could hardly be more welcoming. However, the small college on the High Street has grown into a great institution, whose spires, quadrangles and labs bristling with modern technology dominate Gilmorehill and the streets all around.

"It's a bit scary because it's so big," says 10-year-old Megan from Milton Primary in Lesmahagow, South Lanarkshire, who is visiting the university as part of the Goals (Greater Opportunity of Access and Learning with Schools) project.

With a combined staffstudent population of 25,000, Glasgow University is larger than many Scottish towns, including Lesmahagow, which is quite a rural community, says Megan's teacher, Peter Boyle. "We sometimes have to chase sheep from the playground," he explains.

"The sheer scale of this place has impressed the kids. As we walked down from the Hunterian Museum, they kept asking if the buildings we passed were part of the university. I told them everything they could see was part of it."

Though a little overawed, the children love the dynamism of the university, says Mr Boyle. "They see the students moving around, the different shapes and sizes, colours and creeds. One of them said to me: 'There's an awful lot happening here, isn't there?' It really excited them."

Goals, which was launched by the West of Scotland Wider Access Forum in 2000, aims to show children like Megan, from schools with low participation rates in higher education, that a university is not as scary as it seems and could be a good place to go when they leave school. Aimed at Primary 6 to Secondary 6 pupils, Goals is now working with 250 primary schools and 43 secondaries, from Argyll and Bute to Dumfries and Galloway.

"It is the largest project of its kind in the UK," says the director of Goals, Lorraine Judge. "It may well be the largest in Europe.

"We don't try to persuade kids at the age of 10 - the youngest we work with - that they should go to university. That would be a complete turn-off.

Instead, we go into the schools, talk to the kids, work with them on projects, bring them into the universities and, through engaging activities, get them familiar with the whole idea of higher education."

In Glasgow University's famous debating chamber where, down the years, the nation's rising stars have wrestled with thorny problems of politics and morality, the Lesmahagow pupils have just been set a poser of their own.

"Do bald people get dandruff?" Deborah McNeill, a Setpoint science presenter, has asked them.

There is a flurry of discussion, the children press the buttons on their handsets and the interactive voting system processes and displays the results almost instantly on the big screen. If 80 per cent of them are right, no hair means no dandruff. If only it were true.

Following the warm-up, the show gets into the science. Gases and liquids freeze, flow and bubble. Corks pop, flasks foam, kids chuckle. Ms McNeill takes the children from the inside of a balloon to the air on Venus in child-sized chunks of exposition, audience participation and instant feedback. With the help of the technology, she skilfully steers them away from the misconceptions that bedevil primary children's grasp of the natural world.

It is a performance the science communicators of Setpoint Scotland West (which is based at the university) have given many times, with one big difference: the interactive voting system they have been developing and researching tells the presenter instantly if the class as a whole, or just a few bright sparks, is keeping up with her.

The engagement of all the children who participate in Goals is essential, says Ms Judge. "We do that through our Links students, our undergraduate volunteers we have trained to talk to schoolchildren about the life and work of a university student."

A key feature of Goals is that all seven of the higher education institutions involved - all in or near Glasgow - share the objective of widening participation but each takes the lead in a different aspect of the initiative.

"At Glasgow Caledonian University, we organise the students to go into the schools and the children to come out to a university," says the Links programme director, Eleanor Wilson. "We work with all the primaries and all the secondaries.

"At the start of Goals, a young girl from Castlemilk came out to Glasgow University on a visit. She took one look at the buildings, got back on the bus and went straight home again. She thought: 'This place is not for me.'

We worked with her and got her back, but it just shows how frightening a university can be for these children.

"We want to dispel that fear, get them through the gates, help them see that people in a university look like their mums and dads, brothers and sisters."

"We choose engaging activities for the younger ones, rather than lectures and seminars. They get that later in their Goals experience. From next year, every primary pupil involved in Goals - that's 7,500 kids - will get a campus visit before they go to secondary school."

Mr Boyle describes the science show as "superb" and the morning's art workshop as highly enjoyable. "But the essence of today for these kids is that they are going to university and they're finding out that it can be a welcoming place," he says.

"Very importantly, the day is also putting options and opportunities into their minds that they would never have considered."

Megan has had a great time at Glasgow University, she says, as she shows off the T-shirt she decorated this morning with a beautiful but not immediately recognisable animal. "It's a horsopus, a horse with eight legs," she says with a big smile.

"I had thought about going to university before today, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Now I know. I would like to do designing."

For her classmate Lewis, 10, none of whose immediate family attended university, the campus visit has been a revelation.

"We've got about 200 pupils at our school, but Glasgow University has nearly 20,000 students. It's really big," he says.

"I would like to come here. Before, I just thought I would go to high school, then try to get a job. I've decided today I would like to go to university and study history when I leave school."

Goals director, Lorraine Judge, tel 0141 848 3489

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