Education: Meteoric attempt to catch the young

When should you start to prepare children for university? A radical scheme in the North East is targeting primary schools.
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The Independent Online
By the time many youngsters hit 13 or 14, they have become turned off education because they think it's not cool. They bunk off school, do badly in their GCSEs, and have no hope of A-levels, let alone going to college. That may change, however, if the University of Teesside is successful with a new scheme to catch children young - while they're still at primary school - and switch them on to the joys of university life.

Aimed at children aged 10 and 11, from the six primary schools in central Middlesbrough, the scheme is a novel attempt to familiarise young children with their local university, in an area where teenagers have been notoriously impervious to staying on at school or going into higher education. Teeside University is in the centre of Middlesbrough, a northern Coronation Street- style town, which was once humming with industry, but is now intensely deprived because the industry has vanished. Unemployment is high in the area, there are large numbers of one-parent families, and an average of 56 per cent of schoolchildren are on free school meals. Only 5 per cent of young people move on to higher education.

The University of Teesside is determined to change that. "We want our programme to raise the aspirations of young people in the area and enable them to develop pride in themselves and the university - just as they have pride in Middlesbrough football club," says Helen Pickering, deputy vice chancellor.

"I want them to see the university as theirs and to really identify with it. We need a successful town, and for the youngsters to be ambitious and motivated. We will never thrive unless we can capture the interest of the children in learning."

Called the Meteor Programme, the initiative involved 320 children spending half a day at the university last week. After some time surfing the Internet, and visiting websites for Disney, the BBC and their local football club, they took part in a team-building game and a science experiment before finishing with a wild bop in the university's disco. But the programme doesn't end there. Its organisers know they have to keep in touch with the children if they are to nurture them through secondary school and keep them interested in university study.

To this end they have recruited 22 students from Teesside's Students' Union job shop to act as mentors for the children. These students will visit the schools, get to know the children, and help to run a summer school for them at the university in July. The student mentors are being paid pounds 4 an hour for their work. At the same time they are being trained by the university in the arts of mentoring, and are clocking up a module in the subject with which to burnish their CVs. "It's a win-win situation," says Pickering. "Everyone benefits."

This is thought to be the first time that a university has made a truly energetic attempt to recruit such young children into higher education. Last year, the University of Abertay Dundee launched an academic compact aimed at 12-year-olds - those in their second year of secondary school. The children are guaranteed university places if they show they can reach a required standard, turn up to their classes on time, behave well at school and do their homework regularly and to a good standard. That compact is being expanded this year.

In Wales, the University of Glamorgan reaches out to primary children in an area which has suffered a similar industrial decline to Middlesbrough. It sends its students out into schools to act as role models for pupils and to help teachers in the classroom. To that extent it resembles the North East initiative. But it does not invite the primary school children into the university for taster sessions and summer schools. "I would really applaud Teesside," says Professor Danny Saunders, Glamorgan's head of education development. "This kind of proactive strategy is excellent. Many universities only work with sixth formers, but this is more successful because you are really permeating the education system across the three sectors. You are also familiarising children with the large and alien university world. It should bring more long-term results."

The initiative is being strongly supported by Dr Cheryle Berry, director of education and leisure services in Middlesbrough, who sees it as an important strand in her efforts to raise standards. The town is caught in a vicious cycle of underachievement which starts young, she says. Only 27 per cent of pupils get five GCSE grades A to C, compared to the national average of 46 per cent. And the proportion of young people going into further education is low - 30 per cent.

In Middlesbrough - as in Glamorgan - you find generations of families with no experience of higher or further education. You also find girls leaving school and becoming pregnant almost immediately. Another problem is that significant numbers of young people disappear from the statistics altogether at the age of 16. They don't go into any kind of education or training and they don't join the dole queue. No one really knows what happens to them. This is an extremely unusual phenomenon, according to Dr Berry and one which is not seen in most of the other parts of the country. Six per cent of young people have disappeared from statistical view, a year after leaving school.

That is one reason why the Government has sited an education action zone in East Middlesbrough. Dr Berry is hoping the Meteor Programme can be expanded further - so that the primary children can be tracked through their time at secondary school - with the help of a Single Regeneration Budget bid. "I think it is wonderful that university students and lecturers are working together with their neighbouring primary schools to show that higher education is within the reach of most young people in Middlesbrough," she says. "In some areas in the south of England, almost every child goes to university; we don't see why we shouldn't aspire for the same to be true here in Middlesbrough."

Money for the programme has come from the university, and the council- backed Safe in Teesside - "Pride on Campus" initiative. In fact, the origin of the scheme lay in concern about young children from the immediate area using the campus almost as an adventure playground for their own recreation, and causing damage. The hope is that they will feel differently about the place when they have developed some affinity with it.

The financial support has enabled the university to appoint a schools and community liaison officer, David Littlefair, a former physics teacher from County Durham, who is delighted by the support he's been receiving from the local primaries. "It's important to get the children involved at an early age, when they're still enthusiastic and excited by education. "I stress to them that this is their university," he says. "I try to link the university to the football team. I say to them, `You are worthy of coming here, and you are more than capable of going to university if that's what you want'."

For the programme to work in the long term, it will have to be expanded to see the children through secondary school. The idea is to follow up the Year 6 summer school with a second summer school in Year 9. But the acid test won't be for another five years when the children take their GCSEs. How many of them will then opt to stay on in education?

WHAT DO THE CHILDREN THINK ABOUT IT?

"IT'S DEAD good," exclaims Jimmy Jamietindall, 10, towards the end of his taster morning at Teesside University last Thursday. His favourite activity was watching Coca Cola cans being crushed under pressure in a machine. He may not have known it at the time, but he had been learning some elementary physics. The problem posed was: a warehouse manager wants to know how many cans of Coke he can stack without them bursting. The machine calculates the weights and numbers for him. Afterwards Jimmy says that, yes, he would like to go to university when he is older.

Adele Myers, 11, is similarly enthusiastic. Her favourite activity was a team-building exercise where the children from Ayresome Junior divide into two teams and compete to see who can get their balls from one island (a mat) to another without touching the sea (the floor). Adele doesn't know if her parents have gone to university, but she would certainly favour doing so.

The 400-pupil Ayresome Junior is typical of primary schools in inner- city Middlesbrough. Inhabitants of its catchment area live in rows of Victorian back-to-back houses, struggling to make a living, mainly in service jobs. Seven out of 10 of the schoolchildren qualify for free school meals; three in 10 are from ethnic minorities. Its head, Peter Bailey, is thrilled with the Meteor Programme. "This is only a beginning," he says. "I see it long-term as having a major impact, not just on the students but on the community generally."

Another school in the scheme, Abingdon Road Junior, also sent its Year 6 to the university last Thursday. It has a much bigger proportion of ethnic minorities than Ayresome - 70 per cent - and English is a second language for 65 per cent of the children. "We're determined our children are going to be as successful as possible," says its head, Bob Eastwood.

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