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Should universities take control of schools? The government thinks so

Should universities take control of schools? The government thinks so Science & Technology World Website


It’s not surprising that students at King’s College London Mathematics School sometimes sit in class looking a bit baffled. “In how many ways can 105 be written as the sum of consecutive positive integers?” asks headteacher Dan Abramson. The question is taken from a list set by PhD students, which forms part of the school’s specially designed problem-solving curriculum.

“You could give that question to a GCSE student and they could make progress, because you don’t need to know lots of maths,” he says (*if you’re intrigued, the answer is below).

King’s Maths School, a specialist maths sixth form, was set up by King’s College London and first opened its doors in 2014. It aims to give students a rigorous maths education that goes beyond what’s needed to pass exams. Students learn to think creatively about maths problems through lessons with PhD students, talks from professors and visits to the university to attend lectures.

King’s College London is one of about 60 universities that is involved in school sponsorship – a number that could soon increase. In September, the government proposed that all universities should be required to take over or set up a school in exchange for charging higher fees. Each school would be expected to receive an Ofsted rating of “good” or “outstanding” within a number of years, while over time the university would be required to take on extra schools.

The idea is that universities have “a depth of expertise and resources to draw on – in governance, teaching and finance,” which thegovernment says are badly needed in schools. It would mean that universities, which have blamed the under-representation of disadvantaged students in higher education on a poor-quality schools system, would get a chance to raise standards themselves.

But not everyone is convinced it’s a good plan. Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, has already rejected the idea, saying that although the institution is “very good” as a university, it has “no experience” of running schools. Many in higher education agree.

John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University, points out that there is limited evidence to suggest universities are any good at sponsoring schools. “The best you can see, on average, is that universities do no harm,” he says.

There have been success stories – such as King’s Maths School, which has not only enabled students to access expert researchers, but has allowed the specialist sixth-form to tap in to expertise in other areas. When it comes to admissions, for example, the university’s widening participation staff can offer advice on attracting students from under-represented backgrounds.

But not all cases have been so positive. The University of Chester Academies Trust, a multi-academy trust of seven schools, is among the worst in the countryfor pupil progress.

Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), says there is some merit in the idea that universities should play a greater role in schools. Historically, universities have been central to delivering teacher training, so they have the right skill set. 

But there are challenges, Hillman says, including the risk that universities will find themselves concentrating on one school, rather than reaching a broad mix of pupils through their usual widening participation work.

“Having 100 universities working with 100 schools, when there are 24,000 schools in the country, in effect represents a missed opportunity,” says Cater, whose university currently works with 2,500 schools. “If you sponsor one school, which in effect means run one school, there’s always going to be a hierarchy of relationships. That’s your school, and anything you do with anyone else’s school is subsidiary to that.”

The types of schools that vice-chancellors decide to work with could also change, says Hillman. They could be reluctant to sponsor struggling schools, or set up schools in disadvantaged areas, for fear of damaging their brand name. The proposal to link a university’s fee income to the success of its school could make them even more reluctant to take risks.

Nadia Edmond, principal lecturer in the school of education at the University of Brighton, who has researched different university-school interactions, says Russell Group universities take a far more selective approach to school sponsorship.

“Some universities will try to sponsor as many as they can and they will have different kinds of schools, whereas other universities are very choosy. And the choosy universities – like Birmingham and UCL – are setting up their own schools. They don’t even want to inherit a school, they’ve opted for a free school.”

Some universities are pumping vast sums of money into schools (Birmingham’s free school is reported to have cost £23m) and Hillman questions whether students will be happy with the arrangement.

“We already have a situation where fees are subsidising research, subsidising widening participation, subsidising the capital builds at the university and I do think there’s a problem with taking a lot of money from fee income for this.”

Research from Hepi shows that 75% of students feel they don’t know enough about where their tuition fees go. Channelling money away from campuses and into schools could causeresentment.

Shelly Asquith, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, says it’s already known that tuition fees are spent on widening participation, but that a bigger worry is the influence that universities might have on schools. She questions how universities might shape the curriculum that students are taught. “Does [the university’s role] become about trying to get students into that particular university, to get the tuition fee income? And does that then affect what they’re taught and what route beyond school they’re encouraged to take?”

“All universities now are concerned with recruitment, even the most prestigious,” adds Edmond.

Cater says he is in favour of diverting more of the university’s dedicated widening participation money to schools, but that this shouldn’t be done through school sponsorship. Instead, a return to the original Aim Higher model, where students benefited from careers advice and university outreach work, would be more effective, he says.

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes the government should make better use of the skills of people who are already in the schools sector.

“It’s a question of using the expertise of people who have worked in those types of struggling institutions and have effectively ‘turned schools around’,” he says. “It’s about learning from them and utilising them.” Running schools, he adds, is not where universities’ expertise lies.

* Answer: In 7 ways: 52+53, 34+35+36, 19+20+21+22+23, 15+16+17+18+19+20, 12+13+14+15+16+17+18, 6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15

Perhaps the most natural way to work this out is to test to see, for each n, whether there are n consecutive numbers whose sum is 105 by dividing 105 by n. For odd n, you need 105/n to be an integer. For even n, you need 105/n to be half way between two integers.

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