We should lobby for universities to increase their role in schools. Just in a completely different way to how Gove envisages it.

Posted on April 6, 2012


Michael Gove’s statement this week calling for university professors to set the A-level curriculum, has led to a number of criticisms from universities, headteachers and examiners. While I echo the numerous concerns raised, the idea of bridging the gap between Further Education [FE] and Higher Education [HE] is an important issue that must be addressed.

The gap in teaching styles as well as lifestyles is fairly substantial. Students who have, for the majority of their academic lifetime, studied towards a stringent marking scheme led by a set curriculum are suddenly asked to take responsibility for their learning and to assume a new independence. Figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA] show that 21.6 per cent of students are expected to fail to complete their degree with 8.6 per-cent dropping out before the end of their first 12 months appear to suggest that there are a number of students who were never suited to university, and that many were simply underprepared.

On top of this obvious problem of retention there are problems that FE institutions and secondary schools generally face that a helping hand from universities could help alleviate. With over-crowded classrooms, problems with discipline, the need for more one-to-one learning and problems for teachers engaging with students I would argue that there are a number of reasons for universities to play a role in local schools. I will attempt to illustrate some of the ways in which this can be done.

1. Outreach and Widening Participation:

Most universities have a scheme for widening participation that extends beyond the allocation of bursaries. At Kent we have the Student Ambassador Scheme which offers employment and training for undergraduates to be sent into local schools to support and deliver different sessions ranging from understanding tuition finance to Shakespeare. University students gain experience, volunteering hours or wage and a range of personal skills – while the schools have extra bodies in the classroom to support sessions.
Different departments within Kent are now beginning to develop their own sessions and the Partnership and Development Office is working with our student union to see how they might be able to share the responsibility of allocating volunteering work.
Senior figures have made a real point of how key widening participation will be with the funding changes. Maintaining and expanding schemes like this, and having them sourced from different areas such as students unions and the departments themselves is an important part of this.

2. Student Mentors:

I have been a voluntary student mentor this past academic year to an A-Level politics student. Once every few weeks we meet and debate a range of issues from the riots to drug laws.
Held outside of school hours, the student is able to explore issues beyond the curriculum and to pursue thoughts and ideas that might be restrained within a large classroom environment. The one-to-one contact also allows space for questions regarding upcoming work and for further contact beyond their timetable.
As the student is currently in the process of applying to university, I have also been available for questions regarding the UCAS application process as well as of how campuses and HE institutions operate.

3. As a part of degrees:

This year has seen the pilot of the modules ‘Politics in the Classroom’ and ‘Languages in the Classroom’. Each with six undergraduates, they began with a stringent interview process before the university students were paired, introduced to a staff member at a local school and marked on their ability to teach a class of students. Sticking to curriculum topics such as explaining the role of the prime minister or judiciary, we led hour long sessions every week with the teacher there participating and offering support.
Our different perspective and approach to teaching challenged the students and provoked interesting responses. The teacher was able to support students on a more individual basis and we were able to introduce more radical methods in order to express particular topics. In one of our AS level classes, for example, we simulated a cabinet meeting debating military intervention in Syria – complete with passion, statistics and resignations, just like in real politics.
Feedback from the teachers has been incredibly positive and the idea of expanding these modules is being explored. I believe that if the supervision is of the appropriate standard and if the University students are selected carefully enough, there is no reason why this cannot occur in other schools and Universities around the country.

I believe that there are a range of ways in which these can benefit the schools, universities and their students. The presence of University students gives a direct voice to the benefits of HE. This encourages consideration of progression as well as the necessary support to help make the decision. It has also presented school students a break from the norm. Staff members operating with up to thirty-two students can have additional support in the classroom and the opportunity to focus on individuals whilst sessions are being led. The variation in styles of teaching can also offer a fresh experience for students who see their teachers every week.

There is also the issue of bridging the gap for students who progress to teachers training courses such as the Post-Graduate Certificate of Education [PGCE]. Working in schools, while still in studies, gives students an early taste of what being a teacher demands of them, and of whether they deem it a fulfilling life choice. Another gap that is bridged is within the community. University students often find themselves detached from the local people. With newspapers emphasising the negatives of student culture, a divide in many student towns and cities is drawn. Investing students in local projects helps bring positive publicity to universities and encourages students to have more of a buy in within the area they live in.

Obviously there are a number of things to be wary of when calling for plans like these, not least of all are the practicalities involved with working with young students. Criminal Records Bureau [CRB] checks are a necessary pre-requisite to any student who works in a school as is communication between staff throughout. Support for the students from both the university and local schools is another key.

University students selected for these projects obviously must be reliable enough to put in effort every week and both be able enough to deal with the demands these responsibilities make of them and skilled enough to not undermine the teachers authority and relationships with students. That the helping hand doesn’t add a significant workload is another key point to take into account. Finally it is key that projects like these do not undermine the curriculum that teachers are required to teach to, but that they support these, in new inventive ways.

Not every student needs to go to University and not every individual benefits from or enjoys the experience. Allowing students to make up their own mind is key, but we are asking them to make this decision with very little to work from. Having Universities take on this challenge can help University students develop skills, FE students to make a more informed decision and for teachers to have more support in the process of teaching.

Having seen how projects like these can work with professionalism and creativity, and of the effects and benefits they can bring – I know that this is something that we should be pushing to expand. Caution is of course a necessity in education, but so also can be boldness. There is real potential for innovation, best practice and of increasing our wider community responsibilities here. For that reason I think that, in spite of the identifiable risks, we should not shy away from the challenge, and work to see the role of universities increase in local schools. Just in a completely different way to the one that Gove has articulated.

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