Brenda Gourley: More than 800 students are now involved with our Young Applicants in Schools Scheme

The review of the 14-19 curriculum in English schools undertaken by Mike Tomlinson has been in the news recently. Reflecting government concerns about how best to stretch and challenge brighter students, he questions why students should have to wait until they reach the age of 18 before they can study at university level, and how the needs of individual students might be met.

The Open University provides an answer. For the past eight years, more able students in year 12 at school have been offered an opportunity to take one of a range of courses at level one - equivalent to the first year at a traditional university - alongside their AS-levels. They study the same as any other Open University student, fitting their studies alongside their other commitments, which increasingly include part-time jobs as well as their school work. Sometimes they choose a course, say in science or computing, to deepen their understanding of one of their AS-level courses. Or they may wish to continue their interest in a subject they took for GCSE but are not continuing with in the sixth form, such as languages. Short courses in science and robotics are particularly popular and fit well into the school year. In Cumbria, for example, the initial success of more than 50 such students from nine schools has expanded to double that number of students across 24 schools in the region.

These young people confound sceptics - including their parents - who, naturally enough, worry that they are being over-pressured. Indeed there is evidence now that they have enjoyed the experience so much they opt to take a second course in their final year at school.

At a time when the competition for university places is high, evidence of success with the OU demonstrates additional capabilities. As for all OU students, these young people have demonstrated not only an understanding of their chosen academic discipline, but an ability to study independently and to maintain their motivation at times of pressure. The flexibility of the OU works well when they are taking their AS-levels. The skills they have learnt also stand them in very good stead when they start studying at their chosen university. The attention of university admissions officers is now drawn to their OU studies because UCAS has amended its application form to take account of study at higher education level.

We are pleased to have the active support of the DfES and the Specialist Schools Trust in this enterprise, as well as the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. More than 800 students are now involved with this Young Applicants in Schools Scheme and they come from all kinds of backgrounds. It is an exciting project for all those involved and confirms the quality and diversity of the modern OU.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor, The Open University

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