I had an early meeting yesterday of a governors’ committee where someone mentioned this Guardian article from Monday about how Oxford and Cambridge Universities have proven lukewarm or downright icy towards the idea that they should sponsor New Labour academies.

Oxbridge snub to government on academies

Polly Curtis and Patrick Wintour
Monday December 3, 2007
The Guardian

Oxford and Cambridge universities have turned down ministerial attempts to persuade them to adopt a city academy, the Guardian has learned. Their decisions deliver a fresh blow to the government, which is trying to raise the academic profile of the schools by wooing top universities to sponsor one. Confidential documents, seen by the Guardian, reveal that Cambridge has vetoed the idea to avoid any negative fallout should the school fail or receive bad press. Sponsoring a school could also present a “conflict of interest” over admissions for pupils at the school, it says.

Which is interesting, and something itself of a turn-around on several hundred years’ history. Some of the existing “Oxbridge Academies” may only take pupils to 13 years old – St John’s or King’s in Cambridge, New College or Christ Church in Oxford. Another, Magdalen in Oxford, is a leading feeder school to the universities’ colleges. Others not necessarily located in the same place have direct, often founding, links with colleges – such as Winchester and New College or Eton and King’s College. Then there are innumerable local schools the colleges of the two universities have effectively founded through their ecclesiastical benefices.

Oxford domes, old and enw
Oxford domes, old and enw

The formal recruiting links may have been broken with the demise of closed scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge but there can be no doubting that “conflicts of interest” were built into the Oxbridge system from the start. Now, that’s not to say that it would be a good move to set up a new possible conflict of interest. As noted in that article the decision of my own university, Oxford Brookes University, to participate in the new Oxford academy that will replace The Peers School next year, was not without controversy. And some of my own qualms were similar to those of the head of the PGCE course at Oxford – that our school of education has links with many local schools, that our widening participation and outreach programs work with all local schools, and how would all this be affected if we had a founding stake in just one local school.

Another issue I’d have with the country’s two leading universities starting academies is precisely that academies cannot select on ability. It seems to me that this is one case where selection could be justified, and probably boarding too – two national schools run by the two leading universities, able to pull in the brightest and the best who would benefit most from being taken up a level in their studies to equip them for the academic rigours of the world’s best universities. And why not? Public money funds things like national sporting academies which are selective on a different sort of ability.

Neither of us are large cities where our universities’ local connections could provide a base for such an academy – unlike perhaps Imperial or UCL who have the huge and still growing “market” of London schools to mix in. Though I suppose there is an argument that more people in our respective counties should be helped to get into Oxbridge because we should benefit more from the presence of those universities in our midst. Could you ever find a fair way of sticking a pin in the map somewhere and saying that only kids in this catchment area/city/county have the chance of an Oxbridge partnered school?

But how about another idea altogether – that they set up a virtual academy. Just as Oxford and Cambridge are, along with Imperial, in a different league of universities worldwide, so their prospective students need to be brought into that different league as early as possible. I know that in my case, my hopes of an Oxbridge education were probably dashed by the time I was about thirteen or fourteen, when my interest at school “peaked”, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I was not driven or permitted to go as fast as I could go academically and as a result became the disinterested teenager in many lessons – coasting on previously acquired knowledge and skills.

One of the great advantages of private school was that I had lots of teachers who were academics and not just educationalists. This made it easier to place me with a mentor for S level subjects for example which were much less related to the curriculum of the day and more to “added-value” academic skills and disciplines like historiography instead of just history, the study of literary criticism instead of just literature and so on. I just don’t think that state sector teachers have the time, after all the paperwork and so on, to indulge their academic fancies in the same way somehow – it’s not to do with their skills and abilities but the sausage machine system of state schools. So an Oxford University “Virtual Academy” could work like the Open University for bright kids, to add value to the knowledge and skills they gain from their existing state school. To run summer camps and crammer camps for the brightest and the best to keep them that little bit more stimulated and their learning skills on top form.

Every state school has to have a program now for dealing with “gifted children” in their Special Educational Needs strategy. Many I know from school governors discussions struggled to define “gifted” fairly to all sorts of gifts. But here would be one way of targeting a particular sort of academic giftedness – you could tie up an academically bright child whose talents were not being fully realized because of being thrown in with the mix of average pupils with a real life academic, or even an undergraduate student who could mentor them through extra tuition. They could create online courses, like the Open University, that schools around the country could be encouraged to send their brightest pupils on to add to their in house education.

And in return, those schools that use the services of the Oxbridge Virtual Academy would have the benefit of retaining their brightest and best locally, keeping them as an example to younger kids and perhaps even filtering down their enthusiasm and additional skills to others in their “home” school. It seems like a win-win idea to me. No doubt both universities would say that their existing widening participation activities already do much of this. But I think actually harnessing it as an identifiable “virtual institution”, part of the Oxford or Cambridge “brand”, would take it that one step further, make it, and them, more visible and perhaps even widen the opportunities beyond the schools they already choose to co-operate with in their W-P programs.

Oxbridge Academies: history repeating itself?
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