We need to reach children before they decide university isn't for them | Christopher Birchall

Traditionally, universities looking to widen access have focused on secondary aged children preparing to take their next step in education. This is certainly an important moment in a young person’s life, but in many cases it may be too late to shape their decision-making. Universities are looking to solve problems which can become entrenched far earlier in a child’s education.

In 2016, a Ucas survey pointed out that children who know they want to enter higher education by age 10 or earlier are 2.6 times more likely to end up at a more competitive university than someone who decided in their late teens. This is why universities need to do more work in primary schools.

Primary school children make an excellent audience. They are open, receptive and interested in external visitors (even if they can be a bit fidgety). For example: ask a question to a group of year six children, who are aged 10, and watch a forest of hands go up. Then ask the same question to a group of year nine children, aged 13. You’ll be lucky to receive any volunteers.

If we want to raise aspirations of children we need to do it early, far in advance of the teenage years and before they are embroiled in the examination treadmill. By the time they reach their final years of school, pupils have generally already made up their mind about whether they want to go to university. While university visits may persuade prospective students of the institution they want to attend, the overall impact on widening access is negligible. A student gained by that institution is lost by another. Instead, we need to target children who believe university is not for them.

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The seed of doubt is often sewn earlier than people think. Educational disadvantage is often the result of a geographic lottery determining access to high-performing schools, which can begin to have a lasting impact on students during their time at secondary school. If we target children earlier, we can embed the idea that higher education is an achievable goal for all. To make real impact on a national level, a far earlier stance needs to be taken by all institutions.

The reason why this hasn’t happened is because young children feel further away from the university decision-making process, and it’s harder to evaluate the effectiveness of outreach activities. But while they may not have an immediate effect on university admission stats, the long-term benefits could be huge. If children understand what higher education is and what opportunities are available from an early age, we can offset the anti-education mindset which sometimes takes root in the early teenage years.

Programmes must be more than a series of one-off interventions, and should aim to help children understand what subjects are available and how they connect with subjects they learn about in the classroom. This might be through connecting research topics to the national curriculum, or bringing researchers and students into schools. Some universities, including my own, have entered into more formal partnerships with nearby primary schools through university-sponsored academy trusts.

At a time when universities are being pressured to sponsor struggling schools, we need to carefully consider what we want these partnerships to achieve and where resources can be best spent. A recent Hepi report encouraged universities to engage with the pre-school system, devoting attention not only to primary and secondary schools but to nurseries as well.

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It is the responsibility of all universities to ensure children have an awareness and understanding of both the benefits and challenges of higher education from a young age. By doing so, universities will empower young people to make truly well-informed decisions throughout their education. The benefits of these activities may not be seen for many years, but if we leave it too late we run the risk of fuelling students’ worries about the future and their place in it, rather than opening their eyes to the possibilities.

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