Good Schools and Access Agreements

The news* that Cambridge UTC might have been given an ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted, highlighted a major problem with the Government’s plan that Universities must sponsor ‘good or outstanding’ schools.

The DfE consultation document says:

We believe all universities could and should play a direct role in raising attainment in schools to widen access, and for this to be made a condition of their fair access requirements.

We want higher education institutions to meet the following requirements as a condition of charging higher fees:

  • Establish a new school in the state system, of which the capital and revenue costs will be met by the government, or;
  • Sponsor an academy in the state system.

and notes

In both cases, we would expect this school to be good or outstanding within a certain number of years, and over time we would expect universities to extend this partnership with the schools sector, to charge the higher rate of fees. For example, we would ask universities to extend their support to further schools after a certain number of years, which in turn would be required to be Good or Oustanding [sic] over time.

As I have previously noted, this could be a major risk.    The fair access requirements, that an English provider has either an Access Agreement or an Access and Participation Statement, unlock the higher rate of fees.  If Cambridge University were the sponsor of Cambridge UTC and had to forgo all the higher fee income, that could cost it over £30 million (it had 10455 UK & EU UG students in 14/15 which if all paying £9,000 would have brought in £94 million).

What we haven’t seen in this consultation is the detail of how this is expected to work.  A series of questions arise.

Timescales & Scope

Access agreements are approved annually and are their terms in force for a cohort.   If the requirement to have a ‘good or outstanding’ school in sponsorship was in place (there would have to be an extended period of implementation), a University would need to confirm that it sponsored such a school before its next agreement was approved.  This would need a definition – what is the time period the university must have sponsored the school for and long did it have to be ‘good or outstanding’ for?    A school that requires improvement is given up to 15 months to turn things around (as with Cambridge UTC) – that would mean missing two cohorts of access agreements.  Would the University be granted a leave period while the school tried to improve?

Surely the failure to have a ‘good or outstanding’ school sponsored wouldn’t suddenly cancel all the existing agreements?  It would seriously alter the terms under which the universities’ students were recruited; although fees would have to fall, so would all the support and outreach mechanisms.  OFFA have a process for dealing with a ‘serious breach’ but its never been used, and its terms are much more gentle that the loss of all the fees agreed at the higher level because of an access agreement.  So, if your sponsored school got an ‘inadequate’ rating in November, all your existing agreements ought to be honoured, and only future ones affected.

How many?

The consultation says that a university must sponsor a school and that ‘this’ school should be ‘good or outstanding’.  Many universities sponsor more than one school.  Must they all be ‘good or outstanding’ or just one of them?

What is sponsorship?

There are clearly very different models of sponsorship currently at play.  DfE will have to define which models count for satisfying the access agreement rule. As an example, Cambridge UTC isn’t sponsored by the University of Cambridge.  The members of the Trust are Cambridge Regional College and Long Road Sixth Form College with its ‘university sponsor’ being Cambridge University Health Partners – which is a joint venture between the University and the NHS trusts.   UTC Oxfordshire, by comparison, is sponsored by Activate Learning (a group including FECs, UTCs and Schools) with Reading and Royal Holloway as its ‘academic partners’.  Neither of these UTCs actually have an official university sponsor.  But Oxfordshire raises an new issue to the one above, could universities share sponsorship for the purpose of this rule?

What next?

This is another example of bits of government suggesting penalties for universities are hung on the new regulatory structure for HE.  We have suggestions that the Home Office will use the TEF to determine student visa eligibility; which kills off the elegant way that universities might progressively disengage from state support (call that privatisation if you must). Now the schools side of DfE wants to have a super-veto on the access agreement system determined by a single factor – sponsoring a ‘good’ school.

The DfE consultation doesn’t ask a direct question as to whether this will work.  It asks:

How can the academic expertise of universities be brought to bear on our schools system, to improve school-level attainment and in doing so widen access?

Are there other ways in which universities could be asked to contribute to raising school-level attainment?

I’ve suggested that supporting universities role in teacher training might be an idea.  It is also worth pointing out that in order to achieve a simple policy goal – encouraging universities to be involved with schools – DfE intend to create a regulatory monster, full of complex rules which if they actually use the sanction suggested would have a disproportional effect on universities.  Indeed, any rational university leadership would have to avoid sponsoring any school that wasn’t a cast-iron certainty of being outstanding.  Surely that’s not what DfE want, is it?

*Update: The Ofsted Inspection report was published confirming that the School was judged inadequate for management and safeguarding:

This is an inadequate school 
Leaders and governors have failed to ensure that the procedures to safeguard the most vulnerable pupils are effective.
The behaviour of pupils requires improvement because attendance, while improving, remains too low.
The management of attendance and punctuality, an aspect of the personal development and welfare of pupils, is inadequate. Daily checks to ensure the whereabouts of pupils missing from school are not swift enough to ensure that they are safe. 

Clearly this is an important issue, but one that swift action at the UTC should be able to remedy. But, would it really cost a university two years of additional fees associated with their access agreement? 

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