However, we strongly suggest a focus on ends rather than means, with greater flexibility over how higher education can support the government’s objectives. Raised aspirations, improved attainment, increased teacher ability and retention, and improved school success can all be achieved through a number of partnership and engagement mechanisms with schools. These broaden the concept and practice of sponsorship to a wider set of effective mechanisms. One way to view this would be to conceive of schools sponsorship as a continuum in which universities utilise their different capacities and circumstances to contribute to the education system and pupil attainment. This could vary from outreach work with schools, to establishing a new school; all points on the continuum would have value which could be recognised through universities’ access agreements, however, each point would reflect the needs of schools, the local context and institutional strengths and circumstances.
In addition, the policy should be implemented in a way that supports the overall effectiveness of the sector’s efforts to promote fair access and to deliver the greatest benefit for potential students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups, while taking account of any unintended consequences. Our preference would be for an approach which did not make school sponsorship overly prescriptive, but encouraged an environment that could facilitate more growth, whereby over time more institutions engage in sponsorship based on the evidence of what works and tailored to the needs of the local area. We believe that this approach would be more effective in supporting the government’s objectives. Importantly, it would also allow for new and innovative ways of working with schools to raise attainment, and for engagement to be adapted in response to new evidence of what works.
Our response is based on feedback received by members and a roundtable discussion held in November 2016 with a range of institutions and including representatives from the Department for Education.