If we’re serious about raising standards in our universities, improving the transition from sixth form must be a priority

10 January 2017
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 10.01.17, as students arrive back at university this week for the Spring term, they might well find their normally sage and sanguine institutions in an unusual state of turmoil writes Chris Ramsey, Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee and Headmaster of the King's School, Chester.

As bags are unpacked and remnants of Christmas chocolate scoffed, elsewhere on campus university leaders are busy responding to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which could bring far-reaching changes to the organisation of universities and the research they undertake.

At the heart of the argument – currently resulting in a potential cross party revolts in the Lords – is the quality of teaching in our higher education establishments. The new Teaching Excellence Framework is designed to force them to pay more attention to their undergraduates’ learning by creating teaching quality league tables which will dictate the institution’s ability to raise student fees.

You’d perhaps expect school Heads to be saying “about time too” – after all, we are subjected to endless league tables and independent schools’ own ability to raise fees is reliant on the quality of our teaching and parental trust that their children will reach their potential with us. Plus I and others have spoken out before about the need for all students to encounter a somewhat more structured and focused programme of teaching and learning, especially in their first year (taking into account the need for a more adult and self-directed approach as befits older students).

But learning is a complex business which isn’t just turned on and off as students leave one sort of teaching environment (school) for another (university). It’s continuous, and therefore joining them together better has got to be given far more attention. It’s the missing link.

We know this because the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, alongside the Girls’ Schools Association, keep close contact with their students, liaise closely with universities, and survey our alumni. The feedback gives us some clear messages: Sixth Formers still believe they will get low contact hours, minimal tutorial care, and little helpful feedback. University academics still think students will arrive from most schools unable to write extended prose, taught only for narrow exams, and obsessed with great grades rather than great learning.

So transition from school to university is key. And not just in teaching. Increasingly students tell us they are fed up of traditional laissez-faire Freshers’ Weeks, want clearer information about how university works, and above all are keen to get started on their work. Universities on the other hand, claim students are financially naïve and over-protected at school and home.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle. Most independent schools I come across do great work but on the whole, schools should pay more attention to preparing students for independent study and encouraging them to take risks; students need to be prepared to exit their comfort zone, even when getting good grades seems the only game in town. At the same time, universities do need to understand that the first term is the toughest and most risky part of a university career, when everything is changing at once and the drop out rate is highest. Available resources do need pumping into teaching, assessment and tutoring at that level.

But is the Teaching Excellence Framework the answer? It is always useful to gather data – as long as the data is in itself useful – but it won’t solve the problem of ensuring the best transition from school to higher education. Measuring ‘learning gain’ through later earnings, or using the one part of the (itself deeply flawed) National Student Survey, where final year undergraduates comment on their teaching, won’t really tell us about the quality of learning and teaching in that crucial first term.

No, what’s needed is a strong and blame-free acknowledgement that creating a joined-up approach takes work and time and effort, and a commitment to pooling what works.

So what does work? At a school level, teaching the most challenging courses (the international baccalaureate is often quoted here) and encouraging extended projects and academic societies – these will always help. Inviting students back to share their experiences, welcoming serving academics to meet and share teaching with Sixth Formers, developing problem-based learning, and specifically teaching such skills as referencing and note-taking: these are all practical steps which many HMC schools have taken, and which we could and will spread more widely. At the university level, getting into schools, clarifying expectations for students and above all getting their work back to them quickly are all simple steps to develop. In time, evening out the contact time between science students (lots) and humanities students (not lots) would be great to see.

However, it’s not all about the academic side of student life. Socially, more schools can help students be realistic about their expectations – and universities could follow the lead of some of the more progressive institutions by introducing students to teaching as well as bar staff.  And we all need to accept that maintaining good mental health is a real issue, and devote more time and resource to it.

Finally, let’s all bust some myths. Schools should stop telling their Sixth Formers ‘you’ll be on your own at uni’: they won’t necessarily be, but they do need to know how and where to access support and not take no for an answer. And universities need to stop saying ‘you can forget all you learned at school: you need to start from scratch’. They don’t.

So when Chris Patten (ex-Minister, now University Chancellor) gets to his feet and criticises the HE Bill, he’s both right (blunt measurements won’t help students) and wrong (some central push to action is overdue). Indeed, if a little of the energy, time and money which is being poured into the Teaching Excellence Framework went into vigorous development of some of these ideas, we’d transform transition for a lot of young people.

Which, given that a third of recently surveyed undergraduates say that they regret their course choice, is overdue.

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