'University? Like school but worse'

21st January 2011 at 00:00
A perception that higher education is `not for them' is often already formed by the time children get to primary. But a campus visit can transform future ambitions, as Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Four little heads poke out from behind the lectern as the lights are dimmed and a hush falls on the lecture theatre for the start of the film. The pupils, all aged between seven and 11, are taking it in turns to present their findings on the importance of sustainability and how a university could promote itself more effectively as a "green" organisation. If they are nervous, they do not seem to show it - even though they are being watched by, among others, senior university executives, the children's headteacher and their parents.

The pupils, from Dines Green Primary in Worcester, have been taking part in a series of projects run by university staff with the help of student teachers. It is not so much the content of the projects that is important, however, as the fact that the pupils are here at all. Until last week, most believed university was out of their reach and not for children like them.

For the past three years, Worcester University has been running workshops for local primary schools aimed at widening participation and opening young minds to the idea that higher education is an attainable option.

Stephen Pickering, who runs the programme, says that although Worcester has a reputation of being well heeled, it has pockets of deprivation. One of the scheme's aims is to reverse the low expectations and aspirations associated with this.

"After one of our workshops a while ago, a primary school reported that a father, who never normally bothered to come into the school, arrived demanding to see the head and told him: `My son wants to go to university. What do I need to do to get him there?'," says Mr Pickering, senior lecturer at the university's Institute of Education.

"We want to remove the fear factor associated with going to university and help the children realise this is an aspiration that is achievable and not something that is pie in the sky. It is a reality with which they should feel comfortable."

Dines Green serves one of the city's more deprived areas. The school has a higher than average number of children eligible for free school meals and almost half of pupils have special needs. Few, if any, parents went to university. Four years ago the area suffered a severe blow with the closure of the Kays catalogue depot, one of the city's major employers.

The pupils taking part in today's event are all on the gifted and talented register. They have been chosen to attend by their teachers, who believe they have the potential to go to university.

Universities may have their work cut out attracting pupils from these types of backgrounds in the future, which is why schemes like this are so vital, says Tricia Jenkins, head of educational opportunities at Liverpool University. Its own widening-participation programme, known as Professor Fluffy, is one of the oldest in the country and now involves eight other higher education institutions and more than 120 schools in the Greater Merseyside area.

Ms Jenkins fears cuts in higher education spending - particularly the introduction of tuition fees of pound;9,000 a year - risks putting university out of the reach of these youngsters. One of the key tasks is changing young people's perceptions of higher education.

"When we asked a group of young children what university meant to them, the replies were things like `prison' and `like school, but worse'," she says.

"You have to start encouraging them early. Pupils in primary schools have dreams of becoming doctors and astronauts and vets, yet in secondary schools these aspirations are often lost and then it is too late."

Professor Fluffy consists of three stages: examining perceptions of higher education; a visit by pupils to one of the campuses to take part in mini- subject lectures or a mock graduation ceremony; and an evaluation of how pupils felt after the visit.

The project includes an interactive website which can be used as a teaching aid across the primary curriculum by teachers and parents.

Corinne Drysdale, a teacher at Rock Ferry Primary in Birkenhead, says the scheme reaped almost immediate rewards for her pupils, with noticeable improvements in self-esteem, confidence and motivation. The school involves all its youngsters in the programme, including those with special needs.

"It teaches them that if they work hard they can achieve anything. It makes them consider what they are good at and where they can excel," Ms Drysdale says. "One pupil, who is a brilliant dancer, thought that no university would be interested in her skill, so while we were on campus she was shown around the dance studios to convince her otherwise."

The visits have changed pupils' perceptions of university. "I really thought it would be scary because it's such a big place, but actually everyone was very friendly," says Sophie, 11. "I've never thought about going to university before, but this is making me think more about it. Perhaps I'll study design or medicine."

Her classmate, Kieran, aged 10, says the experience made him consider his career choices. "One of the activities made us think about what it might be like to be a scientist, or an explorer or a gardener," he says. "Going to university is now something I need to think about."

A report by the National Council for Education Excellence, published in October 2008, recommended that every primary school should devote time to raising pupil aspirations, with universities in particular encouraging school visits by youngsters who live in areas of deprivation or low participation.

But this may be a tall order in the future as higher education funding is squeezed. "As universities face significant cuts, there is a very real danger that programmes such as these will be sacrificed in favour of work with older pupils," Ms Jenkins says. "Yet, if we don't target these youngsters now, they won't be the ones queuing at the door to get on to degree courses in 10 years' time. The option of university, and the prospect of the debt this will incur, is simply one they won't be considering."

For a university such as Worcester, which draws many of its students from the surrounding area, attracting only those who can afford to study there is not an option, says Judith Elkin, its deputy vice-chancellor emeritus. "This is not an elite university. We welcome everyone, and yet there is a serious risk that current government policy will hit those we most want to reach.

"I believe all universities will have to think ahead about scholarships and bursaries so that we remain open to anyone who wants to come here. Otherwise those who would benefit most from university will be the ones least able to afford it."

For now these harsh realities do not concern the youngsters from Dines Green, who end the day inspired by what they have seen and done.

"I think it's amazing here. I love the fact you can chose what you want to learn, and find out about really cool jobs," says Bethany, nine. Ethan, aged seven, adds: "It's more fun here than at school. At school it's all work, work, work, but at university it's been great doing the presentation and putting pictures up on the computer."

The messages that widening participation schemes seek to promote are getting through. The parents of these children have high aspirations for them and see university as a worthwhile aim.

Colin Fortey says he is keen for his son Connor to have opportunities that were denied to him and his partner. "Neither of us went to university, and not because we're not intelligent, but because it was not the automatic choice for people like us. Children have many more options these days and this is what we want for Connor."

Sian Seager says being chosen to come on the trip has made her eight-year- old daughter Keira feel that she can achieve if she wants to. "Her uncle went to university and he is the only one in the family to have done so," says Ms Seager. "Keira has been really interested in that and it would be absolutely brilliant if she were to go too, one day."

Staff at Dines Green are now planning to liaise with secondary schools to track these pupils' progress and find out how many do, eventually, make it on to a degree course, whether it is at Worcester or elsewhere.

"Children need to aspire and to have dreams because that is what motivates them to learn," says Steve Gough, the headteacher.

"Coming on to this campus has been an experience not many children get and they will now go home believing that university is for them. Every child deserves an equal opportunity irrespective of where they come from, and I will do everything in my power to ensure they go as far as they can."

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