University Tips Blog
Image of students with their hands together, to illustrate equality towards the same goal.
A headshot image of the author, Ant Sutcliffe

by Ant Sutcliffe

Associate Director of Higher Horizons (Part of the Uni Connect Programme)

posted on 11 May '23

How do universities support attainment raising in schools and why do they need to?

Anyone who works with young people in working class areas, whether they be post-industrial towns, inner city, rural or coastal will know that they are some of the most creative and bright children in the country. They have aspiration, they have talent, they are resilient.

Recent data, however, has shown that in working class areas, our 15 and 16 year olds are two and a half years behind their peers in more affluent areas. In simple terms, those in areas such as Windsor and Bath are getting better GCSE grades than those in areas like mine, the wonderful city of Stoke-on-Trent. We know that this is not because our young people are not intelligent, because they are.

Where are the attainment gaps?

The biggest attainment gaps have been highlighted in the core subjects of Maths, English and Science, as well as PE and Music. The gap in the latter two subjects can be explained quite easily: in affluent areas, and in private schools, the sports facilities are far superior to what we have in working class areas, and musical instruments are not as readily available in our schools; we can‘t necessarily afford to buy our children violins and pay for extra music or sports lessons.

So, some of this ‘closing the attainment gap’ is around demanding more government funding. Part of the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, that we hear so much about, maybe.

Image of a student receiving 1-2-1 university support

What are universities doing to support attainment raising?

In areas like Maths, English and Science, the Government via the Department for Education and the Office of Students, have instructed universities to help raise the attainment of young people in areas like ours. Is this a reasonable request? Can they?

First of all, it is vitally important to remember that we have fantastic teachers in our secondary schools, who work tirelessly to help their students. They are the experts on the teaching and learning of 11 – 18 year olds. It is also right to view with some scepticism whether measures like university academics joining governing boards of schools will have a real impact on GCSE attainment. We have seen real failures where universities from outside of our areas have academised and sponsored our schools. It would also be naive to think that a maths lecturer could pop into a local school, do a quick talk and all of a sudden, grades fly up. They won’t.

There are certainly things our universities can do, however. For example, Higher Horizons’ partners Keele and Staffordshire University are currently supporting our efforts as we deliver a plethora of study skills and revision skills programmes across our area. Together, we are delivering initiatives such as the ‘Stoke Scholars’ programme, and STEM and Arts Saturday clubs. These long term and regular interventions will have a positive impact on GCSE attainment.

I am not sure that assessing attainment via exams only, particularly as many young people have not experienced exam settings due to COVID, is right – but that is current policy, so we are also delivering programmes on exam readiness. We know on-site programmes around curriculum support raise attainment too. At Higher Horizons, we constantly have our young people on university campuses, exploring facilities, labs, psychology escape rooms, crime scene rooms, stardomes and so on. The more our young people feel at home in these settings, the more likely they are to go away and create a pathway to higher education which includes being inspired to succeed in a subject area. But we mustn’t wait or pause. We must act now. We mustn’t accept further funding cuts to programmes such as Uni Connect, which has seen a 52% cut to funding in five years.

Image of progress and support towards potential university entry

Lastly, we must acknowledge that attainment is not the only barrier to higher education. 50% of the young people we engage with go on to some form of higher education. We know that only 18% traditionally would. Consistent funding enabling constant and varied engagement gives our creative and bright young people the chance they deserve to get along in education and the job market. They need information, advice and guidance from programmes like ours. They need their barriers removing. We help to support that. And they deserve the support that others take for granted.

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