Chris Ramsey: A university education begins at school

Sunday Times, 05.02.16, Chris Ramsey, headmaster of The King’s School, Chester and chair of the joint HMC/GSA Universities Committee writes: the government’s green paper on higher education has probably not been the subject of much conversation around family supper tables, if there are such things these days, still less in student bars and sixth-form common rooms. But it should be. In the biggest shake-up in England since the introduction of £9k fees, the minister puts teaching at the top of the HE agenda.

Instead, the loud and public discussions have been about entry requirements, equal access, laddish behaviour and even supposed grade inflation. All are important, not to say highly debateable, issues. But if we forget to keep a close eye on how our young people are taught, and whether they are in a fit state to learn, therein lies danger.

Standards of teaching at university have been a concern for many years. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s 2015 survey found once again that one in three students had fewer “contact” teaching hours than they had been led to expect, and they preferred their teachers to have been trained to teach rather than be active researchers. Perhaps most strikingly, the less work students were guided to do, the less happy they felt. In 2011, a Populus survey conducted independently for the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference gave consistently higher ratings to the teaching undergraduates had received at school (state-funded or independent), and questioned the quality of feedback, assessment and interest shown in them by their undergraduate teachers.

However, when HMC first pointed out 18 months ago that teaching of first-year undergraduates was too often poor, and that we might be able to help, we were greeted largely with indifference. And of course, it would be crass simply to say that, as school teachers and leaders, “we know better about teenagers”. However, we have taught them for their entire school lives, and it has to be a useful conversation to have.

So what, as the green paper turns white and the number of £9k students grows, what can we do together to help these young people? For a start, we can identify the issues, the real educational, learning issues, on the ground. For example, how does the new undergraduate, brought up on closely-guided A-level specs, suddenly cope with hundreds of open-ended options? How does he or she move from compulsory, tightly-planned lessons to a world of optional lectures? How does he or she even begin to understand how degree classification works and is comparable across universities?

And for the lecturer, how does questioning and feedback get the best out of an 18-year-old who might know, say, one slice of history or a couple of books really well, but who needs now to grasp the broad sweep, or dive into an area of detail they didn’t even know existed? How are you going to help them deal with failure – or only relative success – for the first time? How, in all of this, are you going to demonstrate the excellence of your teaching to the satisfaction of the mandarins in the Department for Business, Industry and Skills?

These questions need answers, and at HMC and Girls Schools Association, we think we have some. We need to work with universities, of course, but no academic we have spoken to since has greeted us with anything other than enthusiasm in one of the biggest projects we have embarked on for years. Our first step will be to re-run our research, in more detail, with students. After all, they know best what they need and their opinion has been crucial in improving teaching and learning in schools in recent years.

Then let’s further improve preparation in schools, building on the exceptional practice at some universities. For example, Exeter’s student guild members make proper awards for the best teachers, which are taken seriously, and Birmingham’s sports science department literally tackles the problem head-on with a “speed degree” to take students through their first weeks in HE and get them learning in new ways.

But what of ensuring they are in a fit state to take advantage of what’s on offer? It’s obvious that if students are hung over (constantly, anyway), unwell, upset, lonely, or worse, battling against a serious mental disorder, they are not going to do well – regardless of the quality of the teaching.

Therefore, more attention is needed on pastoral care and student wellbeing, especially as students go through the upheaval of moving away from home and into university life. This is the other key aspect of what educationalists are starting to recognise as the “transition problem”.

Sadly, there are plenty of examples of universities casually abandoning moral responsibility for young people – or as they see them, pretty much fully-fledged adults. One Russell Group institution, for example, bizarrely refused to tell a parent whether their 19-year-old had safely arrived at an overseas placement on the basis that data protection prevented it.

It is surely wrong that the carefree student of yesterday has become the worried undergraduate of 2016, less secure and more troubled according to university research than other parts of our population.

But there is, again, some great work to draw on. One university runs a “campus patrol” late at night to rescue students who, er, “misbehave”. When asked why they don’t leave it to the police, they say that maybe strictly speaking they should, but the moral imperative of looking after their own outweighs the letter of the regulation. A thousand cheers for that. Plus, they back their caring minibuses up with a pretty tough disciplinary regime. More sensible action, and more cheers.

So it seems obvious, when you think about it, that both teaching and pastoral support needs to be improved. And that schools and university leaders need to join together to make that happen.

To this end, HMC is embarking on a series of pilot projects to bring together university and school teachers and learners to listen to and learn from each other. One such, at my own school, brought Liverpool and Manchester scientists to our sixth-form classes, and will take our teachers into the first-year labs and lecture halls later in the year. The end product? We expect a forum of advice and best practice from which institutions can draw, and a toolkit for teachers on both sides of this artificial divide. Practical stuff, not theory. Above all, we hope this work will help mould higher education’s Teaching Excellence Framework by developing some simple ways of demonstrating commitment to teaching. Let’s hope that will help convince government that the measures they use to judge teaching excellence must not be bureaucratic or box-ticking, not easy data-based stuff, and above all not an Ofsted-style inspectorate; but peer-based, experience-based commitment to the students.

The problem – the real, live issue – of transition from school to university has never been more acute. Twenty years ago, student numbers were small, society’s demands less and, frankly, teaching in schools was less good. Now, we have students who often have better experiences of teaching to those their lecturers had, who live in a more stressful world, and whose job prospects are shaky. We have not, as schools and universities, yet got to grips with the gap that needs to be bridged. And we need to. As Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter (a leader in this regard), said, “This is too serious for us not to be working together.”

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