Build relationships with schools to improve pupil outcomes, HE leaders told

John Blake, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, draws attention to projects between universities and schools to target disadvantaged pupils

Universities must overcome “hidden hierarchies” that prevent them from developing fruitful partnerships with schools, the head of fair access at the Office for Students will say in a speech later today.

John Blake – who took the reins as OfS director for fair access and participation at the start of 2022 – signalled in his first speech to the sector earlier this year that he wanted to make university-school partnerships a centrepiece of his approach to social mobility.

Today, Blake will address delegates at an OfS insight event, warning that silos exist in education, precluding the effectiveness of long-term interventions and policies that could improve student outcomes.

“We have too many hidden hierarchies, between educational phases and within educational sectors, which have militated against systematically building the sort of meaningful partnerships between the different institutions of education which we need,” he will say.

“In our mind’s eye, we may most vividly recall a single great teacher, but the reality of education is that each new piece of learning builds on that which has gone before, and knowledge acquired at one moment in time may not click into place for a student until long after the teacher who shared it with them has moved on,” he will tell delegates.

“Yet the way we have built the education system of England does not necessarily support the recognition of that common purpose.”

Blake will tell university leaders: “We expect providers to consider carefully what they can do to add value to the schools they partner with, and this will often be with students who are not approaching statutory assessment.

“Most schools are teaching GCSEs well – the school accountability system has, rightly, ensured that these crucial examinations are the strong focus of teachers’ work.”

Whilst we absolutely must not make those who are learning feel ashamed, we should also not hide behind the language of “deficit models”
– John Blake, Office for Students

Blake, then, wants universities to consider helping schools in ways other than examination preparation. For example, universities must do more to help prepare young people for a future in higher education. Universities and schools must have “honest conversations about the variable levels of preparedness of students”, to ensure those from all walks of life are in “the best position to get every benefit they can from their one shot at state-subsidised undergraduate education”.

These conversations should, he will say, include honest accounts of why students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to make it to university. In the case of students on free school meals, prior attainment is “almost entirely” the reason they are less likely to gain a place in higher education, he will add.

The OfS director will say the education sector should “be ashamed” that “too many young people cannot access the fundamentals of learning” because they have failed to master the skills and material their peers have at the same point in life.

“So, whilst we absolutely must not make those who are learning feel ashamed, we should also not hide behind the language of “deficit models” to pretend that it does not matter whether students come to understand that knowledge. Because, of course, it does, both for the value of the knowledge itself and for the further knowledge that can be built upon it—and it is no kindness to those we teach to pretend otherwise.”

The OfS has instructed its registered providers to rewrite their access and participation plans to include how they plan to support school partnerships.

Blake will be joined at the event by Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted chief inspector.

The event will formally launch a new insight document from the OfS, outlining best practices.

A project led by Bournemouth University to help improve the reading ability of Year 6 pupils receives mention. Bournemouth University staff lead targetted sessions for students with a reading age a year or more below their age group. OfS analysis demonstrated that the project improved the reading age of 67% of students by a year and 38% by two years or more.

Another project mentioned sees PhD students deliver university lecture-style sessions to primary and secondary students. The project builds skills, knowledge and confidence to progress to HE, the OfS says. Analysis from the regulator suggests students on the Scholars Programme were “significantly more likely” to gain a place at a high-tariff university.

Already, Blake’s tenure at the OfS has represented a break from the approach of his predecessor.

In a report published January 2022, Chris Millward said asking universities to raise school standards was an idea rejected by the OfS during his tenure because the regulator “could not compel universities and colleges to invest their own funds in schools or for specific purposes”.

Mr Millward said that the money to improve access and participation was derived from tuition fees. If funds were diverted to projects working with pre-16 pupils, “[university] students would legitimately question why they were being asked to pay for schools”, he concluded.

He also argued any contribution by universities to raising school standards would be “marginal” and hard to measure. Many OfS providers focus their recruitment on “adults from professions and communities, rather than young learners from schools”, Millward continued, making their role in improving schools tangential.

Read more: ‘Root out poor quality’ with investigations, OfS told

Related news: Reluctance to acknowledge poor provision led to the OfS, Nicola Dandridge tells sector

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