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University links boost academies

Bristol's sponsorship success story sees pupils from deprived area make higher education the norm, not the exception

Just one in ten students went on to higher education when the City Academy Bristol opened five years ago. Now one in four do.

Ray Priest, head of the academy, which is co-sponsored by the University of the West of England and John Laycock, a local businessman, said: "Working with the university has been absolutely amazing.

"This is an area of considerable social deprivation, so making university a norm rather than an exception is a real success."

Seventeen universities are now signed up as sponsors or co-sponsors of academies. But the Government wants that number to increase rapidly, with every university backing an academy.

In Bristol, academics carry out research in the school, working with teachers to assess innovations in the curriculum. Two teachers received masters degrees last year for their research and around 20 more members of staff are carrying out work.

The university runs sessions on campus for all Year 9s to show them what is on offer and encourage them to aspire to university.

"Having a relationship with the university has brought higher education into the community," said Mr Priest. "Increasing the numbers of children who achieve the results to go on to university isn't only down to that relationship. The quality of teaching and learning and the focus of the whole school is crucial. But our work with the university is an important part of that."

The school will begin to offer two-year foundation degree courses from this September for up to 12 students in a bid to further improve access to higher education.

The University of the West of England has also started working with other schools in Bristol, applying some of the lessons learnt at the academy.

The focus on university involvement in academies is part of a sustained shift away from what Sir Bruce Liddington, the schools commissioner, has called the "buccaneering" early sponsors and towards the education mainstream.

Local authorities and high-performing schools are also coming on board as sponsors.

This all fits with the Government's agenda of improving social mobility. Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, said last week that all universities should sponsor academies in order to tackle class bias in their admissions.

But despite the potential gains for some pupils, concerns have been raised about the impact a university-branded academy might have on other schools in their area.

University College London has been chosen to sponsor an academy in Camden, north London. Professor Malcolm Grant, the provost of UCL, has promised that pupils and teachers will get access to world-class facilities.

But Kevin Courtney, Camden's NUT branch secretary, said: "We think the university can offer good support to all schools. What we don't want is for it to offer special support to just one. Giving that kind of privilege will have an obvious impact on admissions."

Lecturers at UCL have also complained about the planned partnership. Sean Wallace, the University and College Union branch secretary, said the university should be working with all schools equally.

"The risk is that the academy will be dominated by middle-class parents who believe it will become a feeder school straight into university," he said.

Oxford and Cambridge universities have so far ruled out academy sponsorship. A spokeswoman for Oxford University said that it was already involved in projects with many schools and would be reluctant to focus on a single school.

Durham University believes it has found a solution to that problem. The university is proposing a new model for academy sponsorship, where it will be the lead sponsor in a consortium that includes representatives from every other secondary in the county and the chamber of commerce, among others.

Professor Chris Higgins, the university's vice-chancellor, said: "We want to help raise aspirations in all our local communities. Most academies are run in isolation, but that is not our aim. What we learn from running the academies will be immediately available for all other schools in the county to use."

The consortium, which is bidding to run three new academies in County Durham, was due to find out this week if it had won the recommendation of an independent assessor.

Philip O'Hear, spokesman for academy heads and principal of Capital City Academy in Willesden, west London, said that it was good to have a diverse range of academy sponsors.

"The key issue is keeping the flame of independence and relentless ambition to improve standards," he said.


West of England City Academy: Bristol - September 2003

Liverpool: North Liverpool Academy - September 2006

Bristol: Merchants' Academy, Withywood - September 2008

City : City of London Academy - September 2008

Oxford; Brookes Oxford Academy - September 2008

Chester: To be confirmed - September 2009

Nottingham: Samworth Academy - September 2009

Sunderland: Red House Academy - September 2009

Aston: St Alban's Academy - September 2010

Birmingham: Harborne Hill Academy - September 2010

Coventry: Swanswell Academy - September 2010

Birmingham City: East Side Academy - September 2011

Liverpool: Hope Newton Academy - September 2011

Sheffield Hallam: To be confirmed - September 2011

Brunel: To be confirmed - To be confirmed

Hull: To be confirmed - To be confirmed

University College London: To be confirmed - To be confirmed.

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