Never too young for university

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Higher education should be a realistic goal for all pupils, but some don't even know what it is. Raymond Ross reports on an ambitious scheme which aims to change all that

An ambitious scheme to widen access to higher education is targeting children as young as 10. GOALS, a recently launched government initiative involving 300 west of Scotland schools, is not only ambitious and challenging, but also unique in its scale.

GOALS (Greater Opportunity for Access and Learning with Schools) is a pound;1 million per annum partnership project which brings together new and existing initiatives to tackle poor participation rates in higher education in Glasgow and the West.

Conceived by the West of Scotland Higher Education Access Forum, it involves the universities of Glasgow Caledonian, Glasgow, Paisley and Strathclyde as well as Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

The forum's convener, Professor Seamus McDaid, says: "We want to build an awareness of higher education as early as possible by making it open, fun and interesting.

"The idea is to build this from P6 and P7, through secondary right up to special summer schools, helping with the UCAS process and revision for exams, giving help towards the right academic courses for individual pupils and, working with local authorities' structures, giving guidance to the right kind of job.

"It's ambitious and challenging. It's certainly unprecedented in its scale and all the HE institutions involved are totally committed to it and also to working collaboratively."

Targeting the 256 primary schools which feed into the 45 secondaries involved is a priority for the project, whose pound;500,000 per annum funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is being matched by local authority and local enterprise funds.

"Early intervention is the key," says George Mackie, education adviser with Glasgow City Council. "Put simply, we want to stop people saying, 'I don't know what a university is but I know it's not for me'. Some children know they're going to university before they even know what a university is. On both the positive and negative sides this can act like a mantra and become self-fulfilling.

"We want the message of open access for all to get to families as well as schools. We want the word 'university' understood, and we want it known that university is a legitimate, achievable target.

"Research obviously shows the usual, well-rehearsed links between poor educational attainment and indices of low income, single parents and so forth, and that these indices can be concentrated within certain postal code areas in cities like Glasgow. But it is equally obvious that brains are not distributed geographically."

GOALS has already creatd links to parents as well as to teachers, says Professor McDaid. "Academic staff from the HE institutions have been attending parents' evenings and S2 options nights to raise awareness of higher education.

"The initial feedback has been very positive. This is not a part-time option for us. We will have academic and guidance staff dedicated to this and there will also be interaction between the academic teaching staff and schools.

"University staff have already gone out into schools to meet with teachers but the key links with pupils will be second and third year HE students, who are being selected now and will begin training in October as link persons and mentors. These will be part-time paid posts and the mentors will link with pupils as early as S1 and S2 to bring them to universities for Saturday fun taster days. They'll help S4 pupils with Standard grade revision and they will work with the teachers.

"We also want IT links with every primary school involved and here the student mentors will help schools to develop their web-pages and will work with teachers to decide their content. There are ideas being mooted about this but we don't want to go in with pre-conceived ideas."

Although GOALS has core funding from SHEFC for only four years, targeting pupils as early as P6 suggests at least an eight-year project to begin with.

"We see it as a long-term project and we'd certainly hope to go further than the initial four years. It is important to improve the higher education skills base," says Professor McDaid.

How soon will we see evidence of the GOALS objective of increasing HE participation rates by 10 per cent per annum?

"Speaking for my own university, at Paisley we are working on university experience, asking schools to identify S4 pupils who have academic potential but are maybe wavering.

"We will bring them in for the October week to experience university life, attend some first-year lectures as well as dedicated lectures for them, visit libraries and sports facilities and meet with employers who'll point out to them the importance of HE qualifications," he says.

"Through strategies like this I think we should see GOALS make an impact pretty quickly. Within two or three years I'd hope to see significant differences."

Seizing and then maintaining the interests of the pupils is seen as the key to the success of this huge project. Up to now strategies have been piecemeal, "ad hoc, bolted on", says George Mackie of Glasgow City Council.

"GOALS is coherent,focused and has progression built in from the awareness strategies in P6 and 7 through to UCAS counselling in S5 and S6. The context has to be relevant at all the different stages to get over the message that access really is for all."

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