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‘Hidden hierarchies’ a barrier to partnerships between universities and schools – OfS 

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John Blake, the Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS), will tell a conference today that universities should overcome ‘hidden hierarchies’ to form meaningful partnerships with schools to raise attainment and help improve fair access to higher education.  

Speaking at an OfS Insight event in London, John Blake is expected to say:  

“In our mind’s eye, we may most vividly recall a single great teacher, but the reality of education is that each new piece of learning builds on that which has gone before, and knowledge acquired at one moment in time may not click into place for a student until long after the teacher who shared it with them has moved on.

“Yet the way we have built the education system of England does not necessarily support the recognition of that common purpose. We have too many hidden hierarchies, between educational phases and within educational sectors, which have militated against systematically building the sort of meaningful partnerships between the different institutions of education which we need.

“We expect providers to consider carefully what they can do to add value to the schools they partner with, and this will often be with students who are not approaching statutory assessment. Most schools are teaching GCSEs well – the school accountability system has, rightly, ensured that these crucial examinations are the strong focus of teachers’ work.”

John Blake will also set out the importance of ensuring that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds receive support to ensure they are well prepared for higher education. He is expected to say: 

“We absolutely should tear down artificial barriers to access based on accents, home lives or the hobbies you’ve the time and resources to pursue, we also have to have some honest conversations about the variable levels of preparedness of students for higher education, and how to ensure that every student, wherever they’re from and whenever in their life they apply, is in the best position to get every benefit they can from their one shot at state-subsidised undergraduate education.

“We should all be ashamed too many young people cannot access the fundamentals of learning that are their right. And that is not just a barrier for the individual concerned – it fundamentally alters the shape of the pipeline from school to university.”

The OfS is also publishing a new Insight brief – Schools, attainment and the role of higher education – today which gives examples of some of the work universities and colleges are already doing to raise attainment.  

“The Insight brief the OfS has released today demonstrates that the access gap between pupils in receipt of free school meals and those without is almost entirely explained by prior attainment.

“So, whilst we absolutely must not make those who are learning feel ashamed, we should also not hide behind the language of “deficit models” to pretend that it does not matter whether students come to understand that knowledge. Because of course it does, both for the value of the knowledge itself and for the further knowledge that can be built upon it—and it is no kindness to those we teach to pretend otherwise.”

The Insight brief sets out how universities and colleges can form closer partnerships with schools and groups of schools, reinforcing the regulatory role of the OfS in this area. All universities, colleges and other higher education providers registered with the OfS will soon be asked to revise their access and participation plans to demonstrate the work they are doing – and plan to do in the future – to support such partnerships. 

The conference will explore the shared challenges and opportunities faced by schools, colleges and universities as they work together to raise attainment and improve opportunities.  

Speakers include Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, TASO director Dr Omar Khan, Prof Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation and Natalie Perera, CEO of the Education Policy Institute. OfS chair Lord Wharton will give opening remarks, while Dr Jason R Klugman and Anna Cabrera from Princeton University Preparatory Programme offer a perspective from the United States.  

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