Too Young To Count?

James Turner examines the challenges of working with younger pupils

Last week, the OFFA chief Les Ebdon said that universities should look to work more with younger age groups.

We couldn’t agree more. The Sutton Trust has always believed at intervention at every phase of education, and we have a proud history of supporting initiatives reaching younger children – including Children’s University and Into University which start at age seven – and visits to universities for 11 year olds.

But like many pronouncements, it’s easier said than done.

First, is the question of how to engage teachers and schools with the university access agenda. It is often difficult enough to reach hard-pressed teachers in 11-16 schools, let alone in primary schools where higher education seems even more distant.  Tellingly, the Trust once funded university resource packs for primary schools in disadvantaged areas and, despite the quality of the material, it was hard to give them away, literally.

Then there is the question of what support is appropriate and when. What should seven year olds know about university which is relevant to their lives and likely to affect their aspirations? A general rule of thumb has been that pre-14 work should be about higher education generally; after that it can be more focussed on subjects and institutions. But there are no hard and fast rules and little evidence to help us out.

There is also a related issue around expertise – what makes an inspiring summer school for sixteen year olds is not the same as what makes a good primary school event.  And the best university lecturer might not be the person to appeal most to snotty-nosed juniors.

And then, perhaps most importantly, how do you know it works? It could be ten years plus before the children that benefit from a programme are in the UCAS cycle. Staff will have moved on, as will the political agenda, and so many other things will have intervened in those young lives.  What will we have learnt? Universities have already complained, with some justification, that only the government can track students through from age seven to seventeen to know if this work is making a difference.

More and more it looks like what is needed is a national structure for coordinating and funding this work – including some of the best of Aimhigher in a slimmed down, more focussed and evidence-based version.

As access work becomes more distant from the point of admission, it is bound to be less of a priority for universities, whose activities are principally funded by their own fee income and whose bottom line is, so to speak, bums on seats.

So a central body could also be charged with monitoring the impact of access work in a wider sense, particularly those initiatives which start young, and ensure there are no gaps in provision, both geographic and age-related.   It could also encourage disciplined innovation – allowing universities to experiment within a framework which allows for evaluation and scale-up of what works to other parts of the sector.  And there should be a defined pot of resources which are ear-marked for stimulating this particular type of access activity.

Starting early makes infinite sense; it is less clear that the current funding streams and infrastructures are able to deliver what is needed.

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