Revolution by degrees? Secondary moots higher education 'first'

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Michael Gove acclaims proposal to raise pupil aspiration and provide HE at a price locals can afford

A comprehensive school is planning a groundbreaking project to host the teaching of university degrees in what would be a first for a state secondary.

Methwold High School, near Thetford in Norfolk, is considering running degree courses in law and business administration from September 2011 and could become a national pilot for more local provision of higher education. It hopes to atract a mix of school leavers and older students from the local area.

Headteacher Denise Walker said the proposal was to use degrees from the University of London's external system - international programmes - which are studied by around 50,000 people worldwide.

The model chimes with comments by universities minister David Willetts about how the London external system was an example of how to enable "new entrants" to provide degrees.

Around 600 schools, sixth-forms and FE colleges offer Open University modules to post-16 students, but this would be the first time a full degree had been offered on a school site.

Ms Walker, who has received Government support in a letter from Education Secretary Michael Gove, said the school was in a rural area where the cost of a traditional university education was prohibitive for many people.

"If we can pull this off it is going to be massive for this area, which is socially, culturally and economically deprived," she said. "It will also provide a focus for students at this school who will see there is something for them to aim for."

If the project is successful it could eventually create a complete learning hub for the area, as Ms Walker is also planning to amalgamate Methwold with a nearby primary where she is also headteacher.

John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT and visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, said: "The idea of schools integrating fully with universities is a very exciting one and helps bridge the clear water between the sectors."

Although the school is seeking private investment to start the project, Ms Walker forecasts that fee income would be sufficient if students were charged around #163;7,000 for a part-time degree over four to five years.

She said businesses in the area, which rely heavily on agriculture, were supportive and she proposes tailoring courses in the future to the needs of the local economy.

No public money is yet being invested in the scheme, but Ms Walker added: "Michael Gove has written me a letter to say he supports the project on behalf of the government because this can be a national pilot for the whole country and a model of good practice for higher education in rural contexts."

Jonathan Kydd, dean of the University of London international programmes, said the idea was viable even without Government support. But the Browne report on student loans - if adopted - would open up opportunities for more projects of this type.

"One of the good things about Browne is that he has removed discrimination against part-time students, so one could imagine a highly viable business model," he said.

Mr Kydd said Ms Walker was a "visionary headteacher", adding: "There is great deal to be said for introducing people to higher education that can be made available on their doorstep."

This story first appeared in Times Higher Education yesterday

School graduates

OU pioneers

Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, was one of the first to offer Open University modules to sixth- form pupils seven years ago.

Three former pupils graduated this year after combining their studies with jobs at the school, working as technicians and teaching assistants.

Another two are due to follow suit in the next year.

"Schools and universities working together brings benefits, including being considerably less expensive for students," said headteacher Paul Kelley.

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