Top academic: ‘Asking universities to run schools is as silly as asking schools to run universities’

The provost of the University of Leicester struggles to understand the argument behind forcing 108 HE institutions to sponsor a secondary

Mark Peel

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Imagine you’re the headteacher of a large comprehensive that has just been rated outstanding.  The government says: “Well done. Now we want you to open a university”.  You have very good links with several universities and value their input, but do you want to actually run one?

Probably not.  It’s not the job of a school to run a university any more than it is the job of a university to run a school.  But what if your school and its students  will lose money if you don’t comply?  You would look for the best managers you could find to do the job for you.  As the main sponsor, however, you would have to commit time and resources to your university, so what will happen to the relationships you have built up over the years with other universities?

Little choice but to comply 

The Government’s consultation paper Schools that work for everyone is asking whether each university should commit to creating a new school or sponsoring an academy in exchange for being permitted to charge fees of over £6,000 a year, which is not really asking at all.  In effect, universities would have little choice but to comply.

The sentiment behind the plan – that universities are part of the education system and “could and should play a direct role in raising attainment in schools to widen access” – is right, of course. The consultation paper is very welcome because it is one of the first government statements to emphasise the importance of that partnership.

For those of us in universities who have been advocating and building closer relationships with schools and colleges, the paper is an important step. At the University of Leicester we see partnership with other educators as a very important part of our mission.  We recognise the importance of excellent relationships between universities and schools and accord a high priority to our responsibility to widen participation. We invest more than £6 million a year in scholarships, outreach and support targeted at “non-traditional” students who need extra help. 

If we are required to open or sponsor one school then we would hope to keep our other work going, but it would divert time, energy and resources that we feel could be better spread more widely.

Teachers tell us that young people who have never thought of going on to higher education start to see it as an option when they meet our staff or are tutored or mentored by one of our many volunteer students.  They also value the access to our subject specialists to keep up to date with developments in their fields.

Students who go on to university benefit; those who make other choices –apprenticeships, for instance – also benefit when their schools engage with university partners, many of whom are active players in local enterprise networks and economic development.

Parents, too, are encouraged by contact with knowledgeable and approachable university people. We in turn benefit from knowing what is being taught in schools and how students respond, because it helps us support our new undergraduates through the sometimes difficult transition from sixth form to higher education.

Competing schools 

So universities want to make their contribution to the education system of which they are part, but will university schools be the best way of achieving it? The University of Birmingham School, cited by the government as an example for others to follow, meets the desperate need of the local authority for more secondary school places, and it is a training school for the university’s outstanding teacher education programmes.  Other universities have other priorities because they operate in different circumstances.

But what is right for inner city Birmingham will not necessarily be of benefit to schools in other cities or regions. Where you have closely-clustered universities for instance, creating or sponsoring a set of potentially competing schools could be very disruptive to the family of local schools and may do little to raise overall attainment.

Rather than setting up competitor schools, it may well be better for universities to work with the strongest schools in multi-academy trusts. A university without a department of education might have little it can contribute directly to a struggling primary school, but if it can work with a strong secondary leading a trust, and it could influence attainment across an entire local authority.

Universities have always been involved in schools – we founded the exam boards and oversaw secondary qualifications that influenced the curriculum until they were taken away in the 1990s.  We help train the teachers, we provide on-going professional training, and our very existence depends on being able to recruit able, independent thinking students prepared for the next stage of their education. We care a lot about education in schools and colleges.

Rather than forcing a single solution on 108 universities creating 108 schools, let’s look at what is already happening across the country. It would be really helpful to create a national map showing where and how universities are working with schools. 

Are there certain types of schools that are not being engaged?  Are we working in the right places?  Are too many universities doing the same thing? 

Let’s look at what is happening at 3,000 plus secondary schools in England before thinking one solution will help every one of them. And let’s define support for school attainment more broadly, to encompass a range of activities that do matter in schools and that do make a difference to attainment across the board.

Of course, universities want to support educational attainment in schools, and we have a vested interest in doing so.  Yes, we welcome the overall drive towards greater partnership and stronger relationships. Like many others in higher education, however, I question whether insisting that universities run or sponsor a school or academy is the best way of doing it.

Professor Mark Peel is provost of the University of Leicester

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Mark Peel

Professor Mark Peel is Provost of the University of Leicester

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