Universities should target children from the age of seven if they are to be successful in their attempts to woo more students from disadvantaged areas, the Government's university access tsar said today.
In his first guidance since taking office, Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is urging all universities to consider drawing up plans for working with primary school children to raise their aspirations and ambitions towards higher education.
This could include out-of-school master classes for bright children - possibly at weekends - or just touring the university’s buildings as part of a history lesson.
In an interview with The Independent, Professor Ebdon said: “Some are already doing excellent work with primary school children - bringing them in to visit museums and holding classes for them on campus.
“The evidence is piling up that long term sustained outreach work is one of the keys to widening participation and fair access. There are a number of pieces of research that back this up.”
He was full of praise for one university, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music in Deptford, south London, which arranges “Trinity Teenies” music and dance sessions for children from the age of two for families in the local community - a deprived area. It has just celebrated a major success by awarding a student who started going to the classes at the age of five a full-time degree place.
Professor Anthony Bowne, the 1,000-strong university’s principal, said: “It makes sense in music and drama to nurture talent from an early age if you are to take them in as gifted and talented at the age of 18.”
In addition to the sessions for two to five-year-olds, the university also offers progression classes to older children - which attract young people from all around the country.
“In the past, it has been a bit of a postcode lottery for dance and drama,” he said, “but we know have one youngster coming up from Cornwall to take part in the progression classes.”
All universities must sign annual access agreements with OFFA outlining their plans to widen participation if they want to charge more than £6,000 a year for their courses. Today’s document concerns agreements for 2014/15.
In his interview, Professor Ebdon argued that universities should switch their emphasis on funding from providing bursaries for students from hard-up families to spending on outreach work in disadvantaged schools and communities.
“Sustained, well-targeted outreach such as summer schools, master classes and mentoring can be very effective and we want to see more of it,” he said.
“It is something we need to get better at - finding out what works and what doesn’t. We need to be better at spreading good practice and identifying the things that lead to success.”
In his interview Professor Ebdon supported Universities Minister David Willetts who - in an interview with The Independent published earlier this month - suggested that universities should target white working class boys for recruitment in the same way as ethnic minority groups and disadvantaged communities.
“David is quite right in saying that boys are an under-achieving group - 56 per cent of applicants are girls whereas the split in the community is more like 50/50,” he said.
“This is a new experience in my lifetime - and participation is also much lower in certain social classes than others and therefore it is true it is an issue with working class boys.
“Also, in the participation rate from Afro-Caribbean boys and other ethnic minorities we have seen improvements.”
Today’s guidance document was largely welcomed by universities and student leaders. Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK - the body which represents vice-chancellors, said; “There are already many good examples of universities, schools and colleges working together to raise aspirations and academic attainment.
“We agree that this awareness-raising should start early in the education process.”