Posted tagged ‘schools’

Higher education and the school dimension

January 22, 2013

The path that takes a young person to a university, or that diverts them from it, starts very early in life. It has been said that the best predictor of higher education success – far better than school examination results – is a person’s post code. The environment in which people experience life and educational formation from a very early age will often determine their level of educational ambition. By the time a young person has reached the age at which he or she might complete a university admissions form, their likelihood of doing so has long been decided. Universities seeking to extend access to disadvantaged students must begin with schools – preferably primary schools, or even with pre-school children.

This obvious fact has now been emphasised in England by the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the body established to ensure universities charging higher tuition fees implement effective access strategies. In a guidance document issued earlier this month, OFFA Director Professor Les Ebdon said:

‘OFFA has long emphasised the important contribution that institutions can make in helping to raise aspirations and attainment among bright students in schools and communities where very few progress to higher education. However, my meetings with the sector to date suggest that there needs to be a further step-change in the efforts devoted to this area. So let there be no doubt – sustained, well-targeted outreach such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring can be very effective and we want to see more of it.’

In an accompanying press release, Professor Ebdon indicated that pupils as young as seven years old should be targeted by access strategies.

Leaving aside whether the English framework of student loan-funded tuition fees is a good idea, it is easy to agree with the OFFA Director that potential access students need to become familiar and comfortable with the idea of a university and the look and feel of a university campus from a very early age; as do their families, who often need to be persuaded that this is a good ambition for their children.

But this also reminds us that really effective access programmes are very expensive, if they are to be done well. I still hear university leaders claim that access students damage university results and performance – which mainly tells me that the university leaders in question have not understood how access programmes really work. As the statistics show, British universities are on the whole still quite bad at securing greater participation by disadvantaged groups. It is also possible that in Scotland too many think that free tuition is a support for access, which on the whole it is not. It is important that international best practice in this area is considered and taken on board; and right at the top of the list of desirable strategies must be a proper engagement with young people from the time (and from before the time) they first enter the education system.

Where do the children play?

December 18, 2010

A week or two ago in the afternoon I was walking down a residential road in Dublin in rather unpleasant wintry conditions when I was hit by a snowball which came flying over a front garden hedge. This was followed almost immediately by another snowball that went out on to the road, hitting a passing car; the driver was startled and the car swerved dangerously before driving on. I decided to investigate, and inside the garden I found four young boys who were having what they thought was great fun throwing snowballs at passing pedestrians and motorists. They were all probably in the 12 to 14 age range.

After we had got over the barrage of four-letter insults that they decided to hurl at me instead of snowballs, and when I didn’t move away, they got a bit nervous and started to apologise. I engaged them in conversation, pointing out the dangers of what they were doing, and suggested they go inside. It turned out this wasn’t the house of any of them. They had been sent home from school because of the weather, but their various parents were at work and none of the boys could get inside their houses. So they decided to pass the time with their little snowball fun.

Of course our schools are for education and learning, but in an age when we must anticipate that in most families both parents work, they also play a vital role in childminding. However our school timetables, and their holiday schedules, assume something quite different in terms of social structures: they assume that the mother is at home. So we have children sent home because of staff meetings or other events, and holidays are totally inconsistent with the reality of modern working life.

It is not possible, and it is not desirable, to turn the social clock back and have a labour force in which only men and unmarried women can expect to work. That being so, it is time to re-think how we organise the school system, and how we frame its academic year. It is time to change the school day, and to adjust (and significantly shorten) the holidays. We should have done that more than a generation ago.

Educational markets

May 26, 2010

If you are following what the new British coalition government is announcing, particularly with regard to education, you might want to have a look at this article in yesterday’s Guardian by Estelle Morris. Ms Morris (actually now Baroness Morris of Yardley) was herself Education Secretary for a while in Tony Blair’s government;  in 2002 she resigned, having rather disarmingly said she did not feel up to the job – I have always had a soft spot for her since then, as such honesty and modesty is not a common political trait. She also has a university background, as she subsequently was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.

The main theme of her Guardian article is the ‘marketisation’ of education, and in particular the extent to which this is at the heart of the new government’s policies. The question of course has to be that if education is to be in a ‘market’, then what are the key ingredients of that market: i.e. what is being sold, and who are the purchasers and vendors, and what are the factors influencing supply and demand? If the ‘commodity’ is education, then you are only going to have a free market if all education is private and if quality is reflected in price, so that wealthier people can afford to buy the best education, and poorer people buy a lower quality version or maybe end up not being able to afford it at all. But in reality nobody wants a market quite like that, and anyone advocating it wouldn’t fare too well politically. So instead the ‘market’ concept has revolved around something much more limited, which is the competition between schools for students, or really for parents. At the heart of this is the belief that you need to inject ambition into educational establishments, and that this will only materialise if they have some discretion as to which students they will select.

Markets are an important and generally effective device for distributing goods and resources and services, but education is not particularly suited to this kind of approach. Education determines all sorts of social, economic and cultural issues in society, and a modern country needs to ensure that quality in education does not particularly follow privilege and wealth. A political imperative must be to raise educational standards at the lowest social level; but a market will depend significantly on a strong differentiation in quality between the best and the worst.

It seems to me to be right that schools should be free to be creative and entrepreneurial, and they should not be bureaucratised and controlled. Equally there needs to be transparency as to quality and performance, so that league tables ought to be beneficial. But allowing schools and parents to build up a class-based educational system is not one of the things we should tolerate. It is, I think, too early to see what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have in mind, but we should watch this space with some interest.

Graduating the teachers

November 7, 2008

On Friday morning I shall be presiding over the first of ten graduation ceremonies that will be taking place over just five days. I shall be shaking upwards of 2,000 hands and will be working further towards my claim for repetitive strain injury…

In fact, I am particularly fond of conferrings, as they are iconic moments in the life of a university community, where we celebrate achievement and, we hope, sow the seeds for a lifetime of continuing links between us and our graduates. The first four of the ceremonies this time are in St Patrick’s College, a teacher training college which is part of the DCU family. Many of the new graduates will become primary school teachers, and in that role they will have charge of the next generation of citizens; there can be few more important jobs.

But equally, the teaching profession, like most professions, is having to undertake a re-evaluation of what it does and how it does it, so that schools can meet the challenges likely to emerge in a multi-cultural Ireland that will now also face the problems and hardships of a recession. On the whole, our education system has changed very little over the past 100 years, while society has changed beyond all recognition. I never cease to be amazed at the dedication and hard work of the teachers I meet, but I do wonder whether the system that governs and manages our education sector is run by people who are ambitious enough for it, or consider sufficiently what our schools need to do to provide this country with the skills and aptitudes it needs.

I have no doubt, however, that the graduates of St Patrick’s College will be well equipped to support such a discussion and to make their own important contribution to the future welfare of Ireland.


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