Intellectual cuddles

Her eyes may be too close together and her blue-rinse hairdo a mess, but Professor Fluffy is leading the way in encouraging young pupils to aim for university, says Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

You may think that primary schools and universities don't mix, but increasingly they do. Frustrated by the seeming impossibility of enlarging the proportion of children from less-advantaged families entering higher education, universities are venturing where few have - they are going into the primary schools to get at children when they are young; and they are inviting the pupils into universities to make studying for a degree a less daunting prospect.

You may think that primary schools and universities don't mix, but increasingly they do. Frustrated by the seeming impossibility of enlarging the proportion of children from less-advantaged families entering higher education, universities are venturing where few have - they are going into the primary schools to get at children when they are young; and they are inviting the pupils into universities to make studying for a degree a less daunting prospect.

According to Universities UK, the umbrella group for higher education, more than 35 universities are engaged in primary school outreach work. They range from venerable institutions, such as Cambridge, to former polytechnics, like Portsmouth and Wolverhampton. And the initiatives are as diverse as the institutions - from mentoring schemes for 11 year olds (the University of Hertfordshire) to a science and technology bus (the University of Surrey) to maths and science video-conferencing (Cambridge).

One or two programmes are extraordinarily inventive. Liverpool University has gone so far as to create its own cuddly creature - Professor Fluffy (a female, in case you were wondering) - to capture the imagination of primary school pupils. It has developed Professor Fluffy stickers, as well as Professor Fluffy writing paper, and even claims that Liverpool academics are interested in acting as Professor Fluffy's helpers.

Such initiatives are being seen as the only way to acclimatise some children to the notion that higher education is a natural progression after primary and secondary school, that it is unthreatening, and will improve their career prospects and life chances. As it is, 20 per cent of young people live in wards where only 10 per cent enter higher education; by contrast, another 20 per cent live in wards where the rate is 50 per cent. It is no surprise that the former contain few adults who have been to university.

The challenge is how to change the culture of these areas. "What we know is that children make up their minds very early on," says Claire Callendar, professor of social policy at London South Bank University. "They have made up their minds by the age of 11 and 12 whether they are on course for university, so programmes that start in primary school are excellent news."

One of the key ways to increase participation in university education is to raise the staying-on rate at 16 to make sure that pupils do A-levels or the vocational equivalent, and are qualified. It is that kind of thinking that lies behind Professor Fluffy. Funded to the tune of £100,000 by Aimhigher, the Government scheme to persuade more young people to go into higher education, the initiative is targeting 1,500 nine and 10 year olds in Greater Merseyside, and is being run with Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool Hope University College, Edge Hill College of Higher Education and local further education colleges.

Five hundred primary schools are involved in a region that has one of the lower rates of university participation in the country. "We use Professor Fluffy as a guide for the project, as a way of introducing it," says Tricia Jenkins, the head of widening participation at the University of Liverpool. "When we are doing a presentation to children, we have a big book. We say, 'Who have we got with us today?', we open up the book, and up pops Professor Fluffy. We ask what is a university, when do you go there, where do you live, what subjects do you study, are they the same as school or different?"

Tricia Conning, who does the presentation, says: "We tell them that university is a place where you make friends just like what you have been doing in primary school."

The primary school children are invited to the university for interactive and fun activities. But that is not the end of it. Several weeks later, the schools receive a follow-up visit to find out what they thought of their day - and the message about higher education is rammed home again.

For the past two years, Leicester University chemistry academics have been trying to make higher education fun for primary children. Jonathan Woodward has put on spectacles and appeared as Harry Potter, and Paul Jenkins has donned a grey wig to play the part of Dumbledore. In front of a lecture theatre of 150 children, who come in shifts from schools all over the city, they deliver a lecture on Muggle Magic. "We talk about energy and how we can turn chemical energy into heat, light and sound energy," says Woodward. "We do all sorts of exciting demonstrations, with bangs and whizzes and lights. We make chemical stalagmites. The idea is to teach the kids that, in the real world, you can do these amazing things."The lectures not only attract young people to Leicester University but more important, turn them on to science.

Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is impressed at these initiatives. "They are the only thing that will work," he says. "It's too late to leave it until after GCSEs to interest young people in higher education. You have to make them aspire to it from the beginning."

Finally, universities are getting stuck into changing an entrenched culture that says university is for some people and not others. If their projects work, it will be a major achievement and will finally deliver the 50 per cent of people going into higher education that Tony Blair has been seeking.

REACHING OUT TO PRIMARIES

* Student volunteers at the University of Hertfordshire are acting as mentors to Year 6 pupils from five local primary schools from where children do not normally go into higher education. They are helping to ease the transition to secondary school by talking to the children about their hopes and fears. The students visit school and get the children to make a scrapbook of their primary school years.

* From April, St George's Medical School will be working with primary schools in Wandsworth, south London, particularly with Afro-Caribbean children to raise aspirations. Pupils will visit St George's and try their hand at medical tasks.

* Oxford Brookes University has a partnership with schools in deprived parts of Oxford. The schools are raising children's awareness of democracy and citizenship via schools' councils and the university is helping children to research pupils' views of these councils.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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