Universities responsible for improving schools, says OfS

John Blake – the recently appointed director for access and participation at the Office for Students – will call on universities to forge “strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships” with schools

Universities are responsible for improving school exam results, a senior leader at the Office for Students (OfS) will say today.

John Blake – who recently began work as the director for access and participation at the higher education regulator in England – will give two speeches this week, outlining his priorities for social mobility.

He will say: “If we are at all concerned with equality of opportunity in accessing higher education, we must be concerned with improving attainment much, much earlier in life.”

Improving school exam results does not rest solely with universities, Blake will opine, though he will say: “We are expecting providers to pull their weight on pre-16 attainment, a challenge which affects us all.”

“No one is expecting universities to ‘save’ schools – and school leaders and teachers would not be very happy to find that their colleagues in higher education think or talk that way about them,” he will add.

Despite improvements in school outcomes in the past twenty years, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers “remains wide open throughout life,” he will add.

Mr Blake was previously head of public affairs and engagement for education charity Ark. A former teacher and a founding governor of the Oak National Academy, Blake worked for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange from 2017 to 2018. Announcing his appointment, Michelle Donelan – the minister for higher and further education – outlined her view that universities should become involved more deeply with the outcomes of schools.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers opens almost as soon as they are born – it manifests in words learnt before children enter nursery
– John Blake, Office for Students

Blake will address representatives of universities and colleges at an OfS event on 8 February. He will speak at an Impetus event on 10 February.

Today he is expected to tell university and college representatives that their institutions “have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel” to help improve school attainment. He will add: “As both educational and civic institutions, improving attainment in our schools is an essential part of that work”.

Blake will recommend that universities and colleges “seek out strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector”.

“The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers opens almost as soon as they are born – it manifests in words learnt before children enter nursery, the speed of achieving fluency in reading in early primary, then vocabulary, numeracy, oracy and more in upper primary, and secondary, it is clear in statutory assessment results and especially GCSE outcomes,” he will tell university representatives.

No details have yet emerged on if – or how – the OfS will measure universities in this regard. Many universities have relationships with local schools.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, for example, chairs the Derby Opportunity Area, helping to direct resources provided by the government to improve educational outcomes in compulsory education.

Blake said the OfS will “be generous in our expectations of the work providers undertake in [partnership with schools]”. As universities redraft their access and participation plans, the OfS says they should detail the full extent of their school partnership work. “If such work is not currently happening or is not appropriate, providers should seek to remedy that too, with new action beginning from September 2023,” Blake will add.

In his second speech later this week, Blake will call for universities “to do more to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than focus solely on their recruitment”, the OfS has said.

“I have heard more often than I would like that students feel their providers fell over themselves to bring them into higher education, but interest in their needs trailed off the moment they were through the door,” he will say at the Impetus event on 10 February.

He will continue: “Our data makes clear these are not isolated experiences. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have often overcome significant obstacles to get to university.

“It cannot be right that those students’ entry to higher education is used to polish the laurels of providers who are consistently and persistently not delivering on the quality of teaching and support those same students need to thrive in higher education and succeed after graduation.”

Universities responsible for improving schools, says OfS
Chris Millward, former OfS director for access and participation, said last month that he had rejected calls for universities to raise school standards, saying their likely contribution would be “marginal”.

Blake will “reject any suggestion” of a “trade-off” between improving access for disadvantaged students to universities and improving “quality” of student outcomes.

Some have voiced concern that the route the OfS will take to regulating student outcomes – like, for example, the number progressing to the second year of study – may lead universities to take a more cautious approach to student intake. “If providers believe the regulation of quality justifies reducing their openness to those from families and communities with less experience of higher education or who have travelled less common, often more demanding, routes to reach them, they should be ashamed of themselves,” Blake will tell delegates.

“[Universities] should also be under no illusion that every power the OfS has, including removing providers’ access to higher fees, will be deployed to ensure providers abide by their responsibility to improve access, participation and quality,” he will warn.

Last month, Blake’s predecessor, Chris Millward, wrote a report on his experience as director of access and participation.

He 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 said.

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.

Ahead of his speech today, Donelan said: “It is a well-worn truth that opportunity has its roots in the early stages of education – which is why to truly champion widening access universities must work with schools and help ensure that disadvantaged pupils are not left behind their peers.

“Real social mobility is about more than just getting disadvantaged students through the door – it’s about supporting them with high-quality courses which guide them towards a skilled career and successful future. That’s why last year I asked universities to reboot their access plans to work more closely with schools to boost attainments, to cut drop-out rates and to boost progression into high-paid, high-skilled jobs”.

Image © Ark.

Read more: Rewrite access and participation plans, Donelan directs

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