Letter To a Headteacher
Today we launch ‘Dear Headteacher’: UniBox’s two-week series of thought-provoking articles and exclusive resources provided by Philip Rogerson, one of our core contributors, who has 20 years’ experience in giving Higher Education guidance in schools.
We’ll be going into some gritty detail, discovering slightly counter-intuitive truths and laying out the principles and practices that have served Philip and his students superbly well, while recognising that the landscape of HE admissions is constantly shifting.
We also recognise that Sherborne, an independent school for boys aged 13 to 18 where Philip is Director of Higher Education and Careers, is not representative of the UK secondary school sector as a whole – but we’re sharing this guidance with you for the sake of all pupils who have ambitions of getting a university place, and that is to be welcomed.
We start with a call to arms: an open ‘Letter to a Headteacher’ that seeks the very best for pupils who want to go to university; the perfect introduction to what will come over the next fortnight.
I am sure you want each of your students to flourish as much as they can within your school, and I dare say this also applies to where they go after they leave your school.I would like you to consider a few personal views about those who choose to apply to university.
They are based on over twenty years of experience in helping potential applicants from a wide variety of schools find the best choice for them. I have also visited all the UK universities and spoken with current students and admissions’ staff.
- 1. There is no such thing as a “good university” in absolute terms. What is good for one person is not necessarily good for another.
- 2. The best way for an applicant to find what is best for them as an individual is to adopt an evidence-based approach, rather than relying on blind brand-name prejudice and unreliable league tables.
- 3. Headteachers can have a vital role to play in raising applicants’ aspirations. This is not a new phenomenon: Dora Hibgame did this in the 1930s in the obscure Batley Girls’ Grammar School, West Yorkshire, when several girls from low income backgrounds gained Oxbridge places.
- 4. Adopting an evidence-based approach is not going to cost a school a huge amount of money, but the pay-off can be immense, if applicants feel confident about the choices they have made: improved motivation and outcomes in examinations; greater readiness to feed back university experiences to current students; more positive feelings in the local community.
- 5. There is plenty of free help on offer from ‘Outreach’ departments in universities for potential applicants, especially since the lifting of Student Number Controls in the last four years. This is not confined to presentations for applicants and parents. There is much on offer for younger pupils, for many of whom a first visit to university can be inspiring.
- 6. It is important that information, advice and guidance (IAG) from the university end is complemented by a structured programme from the school end, in which the focus is on offering an evidence-based approach that is appropriate for each individual.
- 7. There should be at least two members of the school staff who have responsibility for HE IAG: if one leaves, there will always be some continuity. Both should have dedicated time for this and one of them should have Head of Department status. There should also be dedicated administrative support, which might be shared with another department, but which needs to be ring-fenced.
- 8. Those responsible for HE IAG should not be over-awed by having to re-invent the wheel. UniBox, for instance, offers a mixture of free resources and up to date news, to help applicants and their advisers pursue an evidence-based approach.
- 9. There are several key areas that advisers should encourage applicants to focus on. Individual interviews are needed for this, especially to consider what might be done in the summer vacation between Year 12 and Year 13 and what universities/subjects to apply to at the beginning of Year 13, eg:
- Visit different types of uni. Do I need an urban or out-of-town campus or doesn’t it matter?
- Test interest in a potential subject by relevant reading, uni podcasts, free online courses (MOOCs) or work experience. Don’t assume that this has to be high profile: working on a supermarket checkout is likely to be preferred by Medicine schools to shadowing a consultant. Don’t neglect your local community in researching Sociology, Geography, History etc.
- Look out for free “taster” courses offered by universities.
- Learn about the transition from school to university by participating in a free online course such as UEA’s ‘Preparing for University’
- Dig out from unis such vital information as the size and frequency of teaching groups (St Andrews is the only uni. to put this in its prospectus) and destinations of graduates from specific degree programmes (only Bath and Surrey offer full information on their websites, though all unis. are obliged to submit this data to the government.). When established, feedback questionnaires from ex-students will become a very important resource for this.
- Applicants should know from the beginning of Year 13 what predicted grades would be put on a UCAS form (even if these might be changed, in the light of subsequent performance), so that they can judge which unis. are within their range.
- Applicants need an editor, (not a writer!) when they are drafting their Personal Statement: someone who can keep the focus on giving evidence for every point made, (rather as in an A Level essay), challenge them to give depth, (most first drafts are too shallow) and draw out the relevant evidence that most applicants overlook. They also need subject teachers and pastoral commentators who will adopt a similar approach in writing an individualised reference.
I hope that you feel the points mentioned above are relevant to your students who might aspire to university study. The bottom line is that it is in the interests of everyone – principally the students themselves, but also those working in universities and schools, and the country in general – to have, on any given uni programme, those students most likely to thrive. Headteachers have a crucial role in helping to facilitate this.
My final point is a caveat: careless talk costs livelihoods. We should beware of talking about universities on the basis of out-of-date information and avoid sweeping generalisations often found in the media, such as “The Russell Group universities are the top UK universities”. There is no criterion that I know by which these 24 universities can be separated from the rest. As educationalists committed to an evidence-based approach, Headteachers can take the lead in this.
With best wishes,
Director of Higher Education and Careers
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