Most of the headlines surrounding the ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ green paper have been focussed on Theresa May’s plan to reintroduce grammar schools. However, the paper contains a proposal that has provoked much discussion amongst universities: that any institution wishing to charge top end fees would have to sponsor or set up a school as part of their access agreement.

GuildHE is proud to represent institutions who have developed outstanding relationships with schools. Some have sponsored or set up their own, and have produced sector leading schools. Others have achieved this through multi-faceted outreach programmes, appealing to a range of age groups.

We understand the pressing need for universities to help create a fairer society for young people, we do not believe that all Higher Education institutions (HEIs) will have the capacity or ability to sponsor or set up a school. Although we endorse support and guidance being given to those who wish to engage in this way, we have concerns about it being a requirement for all HEIs wishing to set fees above the basic amount.

Why is it a problem?
For one thing it should not be assumed that universities are any better at running schools than school heads are themselves. Some (particularly institutions with a teacher training specialism) will have a wealth of expertise, but it may not be the case that most universities’ knowledge of governance, teaching and finance is relevant to the school system.

Furthermore, small and specialist institutions will be faced with an interesting dilemma. Either, they will be forced to manage and fund a school with limited finance and sector understanding, or they will be unable to charge higher fees despite providing the quality of education which justifies the cost. After all, many secondary schools are much bigger than some institutions. How far will government expect smaller universities to stretch their resources in this way?

Celebrating achievement
The consultation was a great opportunity to applaud the great work universities are already doing to develop outstanding outreach programmes, and maintaining strong relationships with local schools and colleges.

We talked extensively about examples of when sponsoring or setting up a school has worked for our members– such as Plymouth College of Art, Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, and Harper Adams.

Our response also explored the work institutions are doing on outreach. Alongside more conventional practices, it detailed the more creative methods our universities were employing, such as opportunities to visit galleries and collections, talks from students and alumni; and small group taster days in specialist processes. It explained how universities were undertaking projects based on every key stage level, and offering events for students who might have a physical or specific learning difficulty or disability. We also celebrated the University of Winchester’s ‘Juniversity’ – a transformative learning space on the site of the University’s new-build academy that aims to provide targeted intervention in areas of particular social deprivation, poverty or social exclusion where otherwise the life chances of children may be limited.

Alternative Solutions
Our response detailed the ways in which universities could positively impact on attainment. One was through teacher education and strengthening partnerships between universities and schools in providing the teaching workforce of the future. Universities are able to provide further academic expertise to schools or colleges in terms of good practice guidance or advice on governance structures. HEIs that provide teacher training are equipped to raise attainment, and in doing so supporting schools through their extensive partnerships with the schools across their region, as well as supporting professional development for existing teachers, research into pedagogy, and curriculum design.

Another way that institutions can apply their academic expertise is through funding and undertaking applied research. We know there isn’t good coordinating evidence around the impact of deprivation on young people, and there is a disconnect between current research and practice in the WP community. There is an opportunity for universities to take the initiative and commission research on the issue.

At this stage, it is difficult to say how this policy will unfold. As best: it has encouraged our sector to think more practically about the ways in which it can support schools. At worst: it forces individual institutions with no knowledge of the school system to assume responsibility for pupil attainment. We will continue to argue that this should not be obligatory, and that the 2004 Act does not give power to mandate a particular method of achieving fair access objectives. Furthermore, that universities can add value to the school system in a multitude of ways.

Fundamentally this green paper has demonstrated that government will not let HE blame widening participation results on poor attainment without asking us to take real steps to improve it. The question is whether they will adjust their thinking to prevent both sectors from being jeopardised by the current proposal.

You can find a link to our full response to the consultation here.