Universities should put ‘shoulder to the wheel’ to help improve school attainment

The Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS) will today call on universities and colleges to work much more closely with schools to improve exam results.

Students working at a table in classroom

In the first of two major speeches in his new role this week, John Blake will also say that universities and colleges should do more to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported through their studies to ensure they are well prepared for life after graduation.

John Blake will address representatives of universities and colleges at an OfS event today. On Thursday, he will speak at an Impetus event followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session. In his speech today, he is expected to 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.

'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.

'And despite clear and remarkable improvements in the quality of schooling in the past twenty years, that gap remains wide open throughout life.

'Universities and colleges have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel of improving that wider community they sit within, and as both educational and civic institutions, improving attainment in our schools is an essential part of that work.

'But they should not assume this duty falls to them alone – of course it doesn’t. We are asking providers to seek out strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector, all working together to contribute to this work. But we are expecting providers to pull their weight on pre-16 attainment, a challenge which affects us all.'

John Blake will also call for universities and colleges to do more to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than focus solely on their recruitment. He will tell attendees:

'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.

'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.'

He will highlight the work that the OfS is currently carrying out on student outcomes, dismissing the argument that the OfS should have lower expectations for universities and colleges with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is expected to say:

'I absolutely reject any suggestion that there is a trade-off between access and quality. 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.

'They 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.'

Commenting on the speech, Leora Cruddas CBE, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) said:

'It is fundamentally important that higher education providers work with the schools sector to improve outcomes for young people and create strong pathways into high education. Many universities are developing their 'civic university agreements'. Likewise, CST believes that school trusts are civic structures. There is strong synergy between the civic work of universities and that of school trusts. This is an important moment for universities to build strong relationships with the trust sector and embed these in their civic university agreements to ensure wider social value.'

Ed Vainker, Co-Founder of Reach Academy Feltham and CEO of the Reach Foundation, said:

'Raising the attainment of young people early in life is essential for improving their chances of accessing and succeeding in higher education. We are already working closely with universities to share knowledge and expertise in a joined up, strategic way, and I am delighted to see that the OfS is pushing for more to be done.'

Published 08 February 2022

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