Northern Lights: It’s time for University to invest in the future of our region’s students

Professor Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University
Professor Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University

Education matters. It matters more, to more people, than it has ever done.

A generation and a half ago, young people who left school with no qualifications – and that was most of them – could nonetheless expect to secure a job, and a job on a wage which would enable them to start a family, to buy a car, to enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

We simply don’t believe that the region’s young people are less capable of achieving than other young people. We don’t accept that we have less committed or motivated teachers and school leaders.

That’s no longer true. Life’s tougher for young people, and success depends increasingly on good qualifications.

This is true right across the world. Andreas Schleicher, who heads up education and skills for the hugely respected Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, knows.

He said: “You have two choices. You can race to the bottom, lowering wages for low-skill jobs. Or you can try to win in innovation and competitiveness”.

Across South Yorkshire there are outstanding schools and first-class teachers. But as a whole the region’s education struggles. Attainment is lower than it should be – and it affects pupils’ life chances.

Across the country, 37 per cent of 18-year-olds progress to university, where they develop higher level skills. In South Yorkshire the figure is just 29 per cent. And it is disadvantaged young people who have the worst deal.

On OFSTED data, nationally 82 per cent of the most deprived pupils attend good or outstanding schools, whereas in Doncaster the figure is 53 per cent, 59 per cent in Barnsley, 65 per cent in Rotherham and 74 per cent in Sheffield.

Sheffield Hallam University is one of the country’s largest, most diverse and most ambitious universities.

We are strongly committed to our role as a regional centre for opportunity and change.

We know that we can create fabulous opportunities for the thirty thousand young people – from over a hundred countries – we educate at any one time. But we know we can do more – and we are now committed to using our position across the city region to support improvements in education for young people.

Last week, along with the Government’s Minister for Children, Robert Goodwill, we launched a major programme to lead improvement for the region’s young people. We’ve called it South Yorkshire Futures.

We simply don’t believe that the region’s young people are less capable of achieving than other young people. We don’t accept that we have less committed or motivated teachers and school leaders.

We know there is excellence. We know that there is outstanding practice. We think that the task is to create ways for that excellence to be spread throughout our schools – to unleash success.

South Yorkshire Futures is our programme to improve school attainment to raise aspirations across the region, supporting progression into higher education and work. It’s supported by the government – in addition to the minister, the government has seconded an experienced senior civil servant to work with us on the programme.

South Yorkshire Futures is driven by a long-term vision that our schools will be among the most effective in the country, providing a secure basis for transition to adult life.

We will do this by building on existing programmes of work, working closely with stakeholders across the region to identify new opportunities, delivering improved local and regional data analysis to identify areas of strength and need, and designing ways to get knowledge unstuck across the school system.

We will focus initially on three areas: on early years, on performance and leadership in primary and secondary education, and on routes to higher education and work.

We are not naïve about the challenges our schools and teachers face, but as a university passionate about extending excellence and committed to creating opportunity, we think it is time to step up and lead.

South Yorkshire Futures is Sheffield Hallam’s response to one of the most important challenges this region faces: the challenge of creating excellence and opportunity for all our young people.

We are not doing this because we believe that the University has all the answers – but because we want to work with others who share our ambitions. South Yorkshire Futures is unique.

No other university is doing anything remotely like it. It is an opportunity to address challenges in our region and make a positive, long-term, transformative impact on the lives of our young people. We are determined that South Yorkshire Futures will make a difference.