Who will change our universities? School teachers

5th June 2009 at 01:00

At the start of the 1960s, as The Beatles emerged into public consciousness and the civil rights movement was reaching its climax, only about 5 per cent of young people went into higher education. When I was born in 1972, that figure had risen to about 20 per cent. Today it is 43 per cent.

Raising it further - as I believe we must - is going to be tough. We cannot achieve it just by asking universities to tinker with their admissions policies. We need the support and dedication of teachers.

My department is working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to guarantee that, by 2012, pupils from low-income backgrounds in the top 50 per cent of performance get a comprehensive package of assistance to attend universities.

I know the onus for giving guidance to pupils often falls on teachers. And I know the pressure teachers are already working under in our maintained schools. But I also know that the first priority of all good teachers, wherever they work, is to give pupils the best start in life and to help them overcome social and cultural barriers.

All this is borne out by the survey of teachers' attitudes carried out earlier this year. It reached some interesting conclusions about the role of schools in promoting progression.

It shows that while teachers' attitudes are important, they need to be supported by training if they are to be effective. I hear of too many examples of sixth formers who are told not to "waste" an application on one of the more selective universities as the school has no record of success there and the candidate would feel out of place in any case; or like the Cambridgeshire school that declined Cambridge University's outreach activities for much the same reasons. We owe it to young people to encourage them to aim as high as they can, even if there are disappointments along the way.

The survey strongly suggests that the schools that do best in encouraging progression are those in which it is integral to everything the school does. This reinforces that school is not just about GCSEs, diplomas and A-level grades. Exams are, after all, for a purpose, and that purpose is progression way beyond the school gates.

School leaders set the tone by pushing a consistent and clear focus on longer-term progression as a whole-school priority. But raising aspirations and promoting longer-term progression is a goal that must be shared by all staff.

To succeed, it also needs to be focused - led by a named person with overarching responsibility and, most importantly, the drive, authority and passion to do it effectively. That person needs to ensure colleagues are supported by training in widening participation that expands their understanding of the higher education landscape, including the full range of options and funding available for young people.

Higher education should have a role in all areas of life, so it is crucially important for schools to work to develop strong relationships with the whole community. That includes not only parents and carers, but other local schools, further and higher education institutions, local and national employers and third-sector organisations.

It is also clear that the earlier the aspiration-raising activities start, the better, so primary schools and teachers must have a role to play. We see a need for closer links between schools and universities at every level.

Aimhigher Week begins on Monday. It will give students, teachers, parents and carers an opportunity to discover some of the great examples of schools and universities across the country that are working together to encourage young people to go for higher education. During the week, London South Bank University will invite local pupils to visit the Olympic site with athlete Darren Campbell; Leicester University will take Years 8 and 9 pupils on an archaeology taster day; Birmingham City University will teach sixth formers how to build a multimedia web page using Flash. And much, much more.

Widening participation is not about social engineering or class war. It is about the part we must play in creating a society where everyone can rise as high as their talents and application allow, and where their prospects depend on their aptitudes rather than on whether their parents were able to afford private school fees.

And when they get that chance, many of them grab it - this isn't about dumbing down. Bristol University, for example, finds that the students it takes from the poorest-performing schools get some of the best degrees. King's College London finds that the students it selects from inner-city comprehensives for its extended medical degree turn out to be outstanding doctors. Widening participation takes time and effort, but it's a win-win situation when we get it right.

It is the responsibility of each teacher to challenge, motivate and inspire pupils to achieve more. After all, it only takes one student to break the mould.

David Lammy, Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property.

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