Running a school is no piece of cake, universities find

4th July 2014 at 01:00
Ofsted reveals teething troubles in high-profile institutions

The UK's universities are said to be among the best in the world, with the prestigious Russell Group institutions rivalling leading colleges in the US, Europe and Asia.

But a string of academy-sponsoring universities have been told to raise their game, proving that such esteem counts for relatively little when the higher education sector becomes involved in schools.

Perhaps the most high profile of them is University College London. UCL opened its first academy in 2012, described by former schools minister Lord Adonis as "the future of education". Just last month, however, Ofsted inspectors judged that the UCL Academy "requires improvement", listing the quality of teaching as an area of concern and stating that pupils were not making expected progress.

In a statement, the school said it was "deeply disappointed" by the verdict, a cause for embarrassment for a university that is ranked in the world's top 25 higher education institutions.

Speaking to TES, David Price, vice-provost at UCL and chair of governors at the UCL Academy, said the school suffered as a result of its building not being ready in time.

"There were significant changes in the planning because of governmental intervention and there were significant building problems, which meant we could not move into our building for the first six months," he said.

But Professor Price was adamant that the UCL Academy gained "fabulous benefits" from being supported by a leading university. "There are lots of opportunities for both students and staff of the school to use the university's resources, while pupils will be taught by some of our academics," he said.

Universities have been backing schools for some time in other countries, particularly when it comes to certain specialisms. In Soviet Russia, maths and physics boarding schools were aligned with various universities; the Kolmogorov Maths School, for example, was linked to Moscow State University and produced some of Russia's finest mathematical minds.

Various schools in China are affiliated to universities, such as Tsinghua High School, which is tied to Tsinghua University in Beijing. And in the US, some top colleges are offering high school diploma courses online.

In the UK, though, university-led schools are a relatively new phenomenon and, judging by recent decisions from the Department for Education, the pioneers of the movement are experiencing teething problems.

Schools minister Lord Nash has been forced to issue a "pre-warning notice" to the directors of the University of Chester Academies Trust, calling on them to raise their game because of concerns about the performance of three of their schools.

In his letter, Lord Nash says he is worried about a "serious breakdown" in the management and governance of the schools. Students at University Church of England Academy, University of Chester Academy Northwich and University Academy Liverpool are not making good enough progress, he says.

"The secretary of state and I are therefore satisfied that the standards of performance at these three academies are unacceptably low," Lord Nash writes.

His caution comes just four months after he issued a similar pre-warning notice to Nottingham University Samworth Academy, where GCSE results fell from 35 per cent of pupils gaining five good grades to 32 per cent. The school was placed in special measures by Ofsted, which said that pupils' reading, literacy and numeracy skills were weak, while teaching was inadequate.

Both Nottingham and Chester universities said they had plans in place to turn their schools around.

In the spring, Lord Nash refused to approve a bid by the University of London's Institute of Education to open a free school, on the grounds that it did not have enough recent experience of running a secondary school.

This was despite the institute's position as one of the country's leading teacher training colleges and wider moves by ministers to get the HE sector more involved in schools. One of education secretary Michael Gove's key reforms has been to urge universities, particularly Oxbridge, to set A-level exams - a move that was met with significant reluctance by the tertiary sector.

But according to Jonathan Simons, head of education at centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, these early problems should not deter universities from becoming ever more involved in schools.

"Of course universities should be involved in schools, because it's the right thing to do from one part of the same education system to another, which are both largely funded by the taxpayer," Mr Simons said.

"But it's also in the universities' interests - future undergraduates, future academic staff and all other staff that universities depend on all come out of schools."

Every university should be engaged with schools, he added, to show pupils what university life is about and to encourage them to apply.

"There is a wide range of things they can do beyond that, from academy sponsorship to getting involved in exam and curriculum reform, to running masterclasses for sixthformers, to hosting events, to sharing their facilities," Mr Simons added.

"There can be no excuse for any university not being actively and widely involved in schools."

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