Government report: 'Give pupils early taste of university'

Visits would raise primary school pupils' aspirations
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All children should pay at least one visit to a university while they are still at primary school, a government report recommends today.

Activities such as punting on the river Cam, having lunch in the college of one of the country's most elite universities and touring historic settings could all be helpful in persuading youngsters – particularly those from disadvantaged areas – to pursue the goal of going to university, it adds.

The recommendation is made in the first report of the National Council for Educational Excellence – set up by Gordon Brown to recommend a course for steering Britain into providing a world-class education for young people.

The report of the council, made up of business experts and academics, says: "Every primary school should devote more time to work on raising student aspirations to take up a place in higher education."

It also gives the green light for universities to use "contextual information", such as a pupil's background, in making an offer to students – as long as they spell out their admissions policies. It could lead to youngsters from the most disadvantaged homes being granted places with lower qualifications – on the grounds that they may have more potential having struggled harder to get their exam passes,

The report suggests Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, should be asked to rate every school on the effectiveness of its guidance and advice on higher education to its students.

Such a move would expose teachers in some of the most disadvantaged schools who fail to push Oxford or Cambridge as an option for their most gifted and talented students. This was highlighted by Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, as a reason for the low percentage of state-school admissions to the university.

The council's report recommends that all youngsters should be encouraged to seek places at the country's elite universities – such as members of the Russell Group, which represents the top 20 research institutions in the UK.

The report cites the example of Culloden Primary School in the east London with a largely Bangladeshi intake, which sends all its 10 and 11-year-olds to Cambridge, as one to be followed. Amanda Phillips, Culloden's head teacher, said: "Visits such as this play a vital role in broadening our pupils' horizons and giving them rich stimuli for subsequent work in the classroom."

The council, whose members include the former Number 10 chief policy adviser Sir Michael Barber and the chairman of the private equity firm Permira, Damon Buffini, also recommends lessons in "awareness of the world of work" for all primary schoolchildren.

"Every primary school should have an effective relationship with business," it says. In some cases, this could lead to firms sending volunteers into schools to help with reading and maths lessons.

Its findings were welcomed by the Sutton Trust, the education charity set up by the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl to widen participation at elite university amongst disadvantaged groups. James Turner, the Trust's policy director, said: "Often, children from more affluent families have their sights set on university by age 11 and it is important that youngsters from non-privileged backgrounds also have high aspirations – as these can be the foundation of high achievement in secondary schools, too."

*Boys have finally got the better of girls – by outperforming them in university admissions tests, according to a study that was published today.

The results emerged from a £1.6m trial of the US-style "SAT" university admission test being taken by 9,000 pupils in the UK. The findings will reopen the debate over whether GCSE and A-levels are "girl-friendly". Academic experts say boys shine in the one-off aptitude tests, while girls perform better during the two years of GCSE's and A-levels which reward consistent hard work and essay writing skills.

The aptitude tests are used to select students for over-subscribed courses.