Should universities be charged with opening or sponsoring schools?
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has twice praised the University of Birmingham in recent months for what we have done in setting up our own fully comprehensive secondary school – the first of its kind in England. In fact, the Prime Minister has gone further, saying she wants to see other universities setting up schools or sponsoring existing underperforming ones.
Perhaps what has been lost in this rhetoric is the distinctively Birmingham nature of the story and success of the University of Birmingham Secondary School. Since we were established by Royal Charter in 1900 as England’s first civic university, we have upheld this trailblazing tradition.
Now in its second year of operation, our school is fully comprehensive with academic subjects taught in mixed attainment classes where the focus is on attainment, not ability. It is one of the most ethnically diverse secondary schools in Birmingham. This is at least in part due to a pioneering admissions policy that uses a unique system of 'nodes' across the city which means that half of our pupils come from the most deprived areas of Birmingham.
We are immensely proud of the University of Birmingham School on our Selly Oak campus, but we were perhaps uniquely placed to open it.
Regionally, there was an urgent need for more free, non-selective, academically focused school places. The City Council has estimated a further 14,000 secondary school places will be needed over the next seven years.
Historically, the University is committed to realising our founder Joseph Chamberlain’s vision of establishing a ‘great school of universal instruction’ in Birmingham.
Pragmatically, Birmingham has long been considered one of the UK’s leading institutions for excellence in teacher training.
These three factors made a compelling case why Birmingham should establish its own school. There may be equally compelling factors at other institutions, but it is important that universities are allowed to lead positively rather than being forced against their will. Each university has to consider whether its mission, its financial resources and its manpower provide the capacity to found a successful school.
This is why, this week, we have brought together colleagues from universities across the country for a conference on Setting up a University Free School, to share in our approach and experiences and provide a space for the sector to debate its future role and relationship with schools.
Without able and competent students entering higher education, universities would not be able to flourish and grow. This university, its staff and students, like many others across the country, have long been involved in hundreds of schemes to encourage pupils from the most deprived families and areas to consider entering higher education and to support them in achieving this ambition. These widening participation activities are well embedded within the sector and continue and grow. For us, the University of Birmingham School is a step further. It underlines our commitment to civic engagement and social mobility. The school bears our name and the close links between us helps to demystify universities and what we do.
The University of Birmingham School is also unique in the UK because character education has been embedded in its curriculum. Timetabled lessons designed by our world-renowned Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues aim to strengthen values such as compassion, humility, sensitivity, creativity, curiosity, determination and resilience. We want all our students to leave with solid academic achievements but also well prepared to play an active part in society – much like the great Joseph Chamberlain himself.
Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Birmingham