Education: Into the fast lane: sixth-formers may get a taste of university

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The Independent Online
In our drive to improve educational attainment for all, are we paying enough attention to clever children? Some people think not. One way to keep students' interest alive is to fire them up at school by linking in to colleges and universities. That is happening formally and informally, as the case study (right) shows. And it could happen on a much bigger scale if a scheme being discussed last Tuesday by a number of independent schools and big civic universities bears fruit.

Lucy Hodges reports.

Half a dozen fee-paying schools are negotiating with big civic universities about formal links that would involve science pupils undertaking the first year of their degree at school. Spearheaded by Manchester Grammar School and the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, the idea is to establish local networks of schools, both private and state-sector, that would work with a local university to ensure that pupils are properly stretched.

At a meeting on Tuesday, this notion, which would mean school-leavers going straight into the second year of a university course, was discussed with six universities: Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Southampton. All present decided initially to work on developing courses for sixth-formers that would receive university accreditation towards their final degree. Bright students might thus be able to skip a year of university.

This would solve a number of problems. Independent schools complain that some of their alumni are kicking their heels during the first year of a science degree at big civic universities, because so many first year state-school students are badly prepared and in effect need remedial tuition.

Increasingly, such science degrees are becoming four-year courses: one year to catch up; three years to cover the ground. These are called masters' degrees. More and more students who want to pursue their chosen science subject after university are choosing to study a degree called an MEng, an MChem or an MPhys. But James Miller, headmaster of the Royal Grammar school in Newcastle, says: "I don't think people want a four-year degree course. They're skint enough as it is."

By making sure they cover slightly more ground during the final year of A-levels at school, these students could acquire their science master's degree after only three years, saving themselves, their parents and the taxpayer the cost of a year's tuition. Martin Stephen, headmaster of Manchester Grammar, thinks this fast lane for the most able would ensure that the country doesn't lose people with a science background.

"We're losing sight of the special needs of a sector of the school population who are crucial to our economic survival," he says. "These are the people who are liable to want to do research. At the moment they're being neglected."

In his 1996 report on the education of 16-to-19s, Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing suggested that clever students might do modules of university courses and have that taken into account when they began university life. So the independent schools' initiative accords with his views. "In some cases it may be possible to think in terms of gaining credit for the first year of a university course," Dearing added in his report. "Some students find themselves at university going over ground they have previously covered at school or college."

That was not a problem only for able students, he found. The extraordinary range of A-level syllabuses in maths and science makes it difficult for universities to start from a common base. Moreover, independent school heads and other experts argue that A-levels have become easier, leading to bored and understretched sixth-formers. Making the final year of sixth- form science more demanding by linking in with a degree course would solve the problem.

With their highly educated staffs and superb facilities, the independent schools involved in the proposal - the others are King Edward's Birmingham, King's College Wimbledon, and Dulwich College - are well positioned to run with it. They are also keen to share their resources with local state schools. The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, for example, has opened a state-of-the-art science and technology centre and is keen to share it locally, specifically with comprehensives in the area. The idea is to have partnerships between state schools, fee-paying schools and universities.

This aspect excites James Wright, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University. It could boost the number of comprehensive-school pupils getting to university and choosing to study science, he argues. "If this happens around the country, it will increase the pool of well-prepared students for these difficult science courses." There is great concern about the decline in the number of A-level students specialising in maths and science - down from 30 per cent in 1984 to 17 per cent in 1995. One reason for the drop is that these subjects are perceived as difficult.

Institutions such as Newcastle University are committed to trying to raise the aspirations of school students in the North-east, which has the lowest participation rate in higher education in the country. Some schools are already making links with higher education, and a range of universities offer lectures to sixth-formers or allow them to use their facilities. Monkseaton Community High School, in Whitley Bay, has done a deal with the Open University, whereby groups of sixth-formers take chunks of undergraduate courses in maths and science on top of their A-level courses. It enables students who dropped maths at GCSE to carry on with it, and gives them skills in independent learning, which helps to prepare them for university. Five of the first group of 10 who took the maths course achieved distinctions. All went on to university. In the current year, 12 sixth-formers are taking the OU maths course and six are on a science course.

Kirk Jepson, 17, had to drop A-level physics and sees the OU foundation course as an alternative. He wants to study genetics at Newcastle University. "At school we get lectured at and told `you have to do your work now and you have to hand it in'. For the OU course, you do the work in your own time and at your own pace. It's more productive that way."

Birmingham is another city with links between school and university. Under Tim Brighouse, its innovative chief education officer, it has set up what it calls the University of the First Age. Children aged 11 to 14 attend week-long summer schools organised with the University of Central England, where they are encouraged to look at how they learn and what techniques suit them.

The notion of accelerated learning using university academics has even extended to primary level in Birmingham. At Grove School, Handsworth, 10- and 11-year-olds receive lectures from an atomic physicist at Birmingham University. The headteacher, Pam Bailey, says: "They love working at that level, and find it challenging and stimulating."

In a paper written before the general election, David Jamieson, a former teacher, now MP for Plymouth Devonport and a government whip, called for more to be done for gifted children. He recommended standard recognition of degree credits, so that children could do part of a degree before going to university. If the proposal from the independent schools goes ahead, that could become a reality.