Comment | Early engagement can raise pupils' aspirations about higher education
By Ant Sutcliffe, Assistant Director, Higher Horizons, Keele University. This article first appeared as a Personally Speaking column in the Stoke Sentinel in January 2023.
Anyone who works with young people across North Staffordshire and south Cheshire - or indeed has children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours and so on - will know that they are amongst the most creative and bright children in the country.
Recent data, however, has shown that in areas like ours, our 15 and 16 year olds are two and a half years behind their peers in more affluent areas of the country. In simple terms, those in areas such as Market Drayton and Prestbury are getting better GCSE grades than those in Stoke-on-Trent and Crewe. We know that this is not because our young people are not intelligent, because they are.
The biggest attainment gaps have been highlighted in the core subject of Maths, English and Science, as well as PE and Music. The gap in the latter two subjects can be explained quite easily. In affluent areas, and in private schools, the sports facilities are far superior to what we have, and musical instruments are not as readily available in our schools; we can‘t necessarily afford to buy our children violins and pay for extra music or sports lessons. So some of this ‘closing the attainment gap’ is around demanding more Government funding. Part of the Levelling Up agenda, perhaps.
In areas like Maths, English and Science, the Government via, the Department for Education and the Office of Students, have instructed universities to help raise the attainment of young people in areas like ours. Is this a reasonable request?
First of all, it is vitally important to remember that we have fantastic teachers in our secondary schools. They work tirelessly to help their classes. They are the experts on the teaching and learning of 11 to 18 year olds. We must never patronise on that fact. It is also right to view with some scepticism whether measures like university academics joining governing boards of schools will have a real impact on GCSE attainment. We have also seen real failures where universities from outside of our area have academised and sponsored our schools. It would also be naive to think that a maths lecturer could pop into a local school, do a quick talk and all of a sudden grades fly up.
There are certainly things our two fantastic universities can do, however. Both Keele and Staffordshire Universities are currently supporting our efforts as we deliver a plethora of study skills and revision skills programmes across our area. I am not sure that assessing attainment via exams only, particularly as many young people have not experienced exam settings due to COVID, is right – but that is current policy; so we are delivering programmes on exam readiness. We know that sustained programmes around curriculum support raise attainment, too. At Higher Horizons, part of the government funded Uni Connect Programme, we constantly have our young people on university campuses, exploring facilities, labs, psychology escape rooms, crime scene rooms, stardomes and so on. The more our young people feel at home in these settings, the more likely they are to go away and create a pathway to higher education which includes being inspired to succeed in a subject area/s. But we mustn’t wait.
As Mark Rayner, Head of St Thomas More Catholic Academy, said at a recent National Summit: “How can higher education engage more strategically with schools to raise attainment? Universities and Uni Connect can help raise attainment, but the earlier the better - certainly from Year 7 or even in primary schools as relationships are key, and forming relationships results in changed mindsets and students aspiring to Higher Education.”
Lastly, we must acknowledge that attainment is not the only barrier to higher education. Some 49% of the young people we engage with go on to some form of Higher Education. We know that only 18% traditionally would. Consistent funding enabling constant and varied engagement gives our creative and bright young people the chance they deserve to get along in education and the job market. They deserve the support that others take for granted.
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