Leave Our Schools Alone: Why university feeder schools distract from raising attainment

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Alasdair Clarkson
Writer

Theresa May has proposed, as part of a raft of planned educational reforms, that universities wishing to charge over £9,000 in tuition fees should be forced to open or sponsor feeder schools.

This is one measure of many which seeks to further fragment the English educational system and entrench the Conservative rejection of Local Authority controlled comprehensives. The options for secondary schooling in England are more diverse than ever, now including: academies, free schools, grammar schools, university technical colleges, (vocational schools quite different from the university schools proposed now) state boarding schools, sixth form colleges and more. Asking universities to run their own schools is another example of the “more is more” philosophy of educational choice, but whether this movement has so far raised attainment is questionable.

Many prestigious schools have close ties to institutions of Higher Education. Exclusive University College School in Hampstead was started as a feeder for UCL. King’s College School was founded by King’s. Jordanhill school in Glasgow’s West End was operated by Jordanhill College of Education until the 1980’s and it’s been the best state secondary in Scotland for many years. Many more notable schools have close ties to top universities. Eton has traditionally sent boys to Oxford. Phillips Academy tends to send pupils to Yale. Despite some of these schools having histories of progressive educational values (University College School was the first in Britain to ban corporal punishment), an education in a university school is generally the preserve of the elite.

Presumably May is hoping the grand associations of existing university schools will rub off on the new ones she hopes to found. This is yet another instance of May’s policy agenda being driven more by the sensibility of her middle-class support base than educational research.

In the Cameron era school reform was justified by appeals to attainment and raising standards. May has added a focus on the word meritocracy. The thinking goes that if a few working class children are educated in great schools, be they selective grammars or new university schools, they will be able to join the ranks of the elite. This may well be true: a number of notable baby boomers credit their grammar school education with their success, although they ignore the economic advantages their generation benefitted from and continue to hoard. However, anecdotal success stories are not generalizable, and the often ignored underbelly of the grammar school era is the story of the secondary modern, where the unselected masses were left to fail. The danger of showering a few schools with advantages, in the form of pupils able to pass entrance exams or the attention of universities, is that others will be ignored.

The new policy has rightly been greeted with little enthusiasm from university leaders. Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and former Principal of St Andrews, has termed the idea a “distraction.” Furthermore, she points out that, “[t]here are many wonderful teachers and head teachers throughout the country and I think it’s frankly insulting to them to suggest that a university can come in and do what they are working very hard to do and in many cases doing it exceptionally well.”

It is notoriously hard to find causal links between policy changes and educational outcomes, because of the variables involved and the time it takes for meaningful change to be implemented. Some academy chains are highly successful and provide first class educations for disadvantaged pupils, the Ark chain being a good example. However, when the Sutton Trust reviewed evidence on academisation in 2014, they noted that a greater number of academy chains performed significantly worse than performed significantly better. This muddy picture confirms what those in education have known all along: the structure of the education system is a distraction from the task of improving teaching and learning.

John Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of education research showed that the quality of teaching has the largest effect on pupil performance of any variable; the type of school pupils attend is not important once adjusted for background. The quest for ever more varieties of school is not being called for by those who study or work in education, but instead satisfies an ideological clamouring for choice.

For years Finland has shown that a universally good comprehensive education system can produce outcomes among the best in the world. Achieving similar success here would require a commitment to equality and trust in teachers that the Conservative party are unwilling to provide. If the Government really wanted to improve British schools they would improve pay, conditions, resources and training for teachers – anything less is, indeed, a distraction.