A NEW ACCESS programme for higher education sets ambitious targets for schools in areas which send few people to university. The University for Children and Communities, also known as 3sixty0 , was launched this week in Aberdeen and Huntly, and will eventually cover the north-east of the country.
The partnership declares that within three years a school should achieve or exceed the Scottish average of entry to higher education by pupils. In 1998 99, that was 31 per cent. In addition, by 2010 participating schools should have at least half of their leavers going on to university or college.
The partners include Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire councils and the North Forum for Widening Participation in Higher Education, which takes in the area's universities and colleges. They describe the targets as "bold and ambitious" and accept that some may view them as unrealistic, especially because the target schools range between 8 per cent and 12 per cent in the number of pupils starting on HNC and HND college courses or university degrees.
The first schools involved are Northfield Academy, Aberdeen, and the Gordon Schools in Huntly. Next year the city's Torry and Kincorth academies will join, along with Mearns Academy in Laurencekirk. In 2002-2003, the schools chosen are Linksfield and St Machar academies and Fraserburgh and Peterhead academies in Aberdeenshire.
The Gordon Schools' involvement is puzzling in that it already does well in uptake of higher education. John Swan, headteacher, said: "We have had a spurt in recent years and we are now at 43 per cent."
He added that the project was "exciting" bt they were waiting for "more flesh put on it" so that they could see the benefits for secondary pupils and those in associated primaries.
The University for Children and Communities points out that although parts of the north-east have a high HE participation rate, five of its postcode areas are near the bottom of the Scottish league table. The "inclusive" aim is to "support children, young people and their parents, as well as adult learning at all levels, in the catchment areas of the target schools". Primary children are not too young, and the Aberdeen launch was at Quarryhill school, in the Northfield catchment area.
Norman Deans, of Robert Gordon University - who chairs the North Forum - said:
"This approach challenges the traditional boundaries of primary, secondary and tertiary education." The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has given four years' start-up funding of pound;124,000 a year to offer activities aimed at making learning fun and letting youngsters see what goes on in colleges and universities.
John Stodter, Aberdeen's director of education, said: "We have long been aware that there are certain areas in the city where participation in further and higher education opportunities is far lower than we would wish, and we have already been taking steps to address this.
"The Excellence Fund, for example, provided by the Scottish Executive, is supporting young people and creating opportunities for them to achieve."
Hamish Vernal, director in Aberdeenshire, said that similar efforts in his area would be built on through the new partnership.
Leader, page 18