Aged seven, I dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Eerily beautiful, watched by thousands, gracefully twirling my costume-clad body across a brightly lit stage: nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong! According to Professor Les Ebdon, head of the government’s Office for Fair Access (Offa), seven is the age at which we should bring our heads from the clouds and begin preparing for the future: more specifically, a future focused on university. Ebdon proposes that, at this age, primary school groups should be recruited by universities to campus visits offering them “a taste of university life” that cites and increases the appeal of pursuing academic subjects at degree level. From autumn 2014, these guidelines must be followed by all institutions wishing to charge anything exceeding £6,000 per year. As part of the conditions of imposing these eye-wateringly expensive fees, said universities will be obliged to submit detailed evaluations of their work – which could include tracking the career details of each child attending a recruitment event – to ensure that money is spent effectively. As it stands, there is no denying that some universities already have fantastic outreach programmes, offering mentoring, summer schools, and masterclasses for children aged fourteen to nineteen. Ebdon acknowledges that this is “very useful and should continue”, but stresses the need for “more long-term schemes that start at a younger age and persist through the school career.”
However, as these proposals pirouette across my mind, I wonder if I am alone in feeling a sense of unease. Surely by targeting children so young we are signing up for a programme of hot housing, enforcing the untrue and – frankly, downright damaging – message that university is the only option for a school leaver. Notice that Ebdon focuses only on promoting university to these impressionable seven year olds: there is no mention of gap years, apprenticeships, vocational college courses, or any of the numerous other routes open to those leaving secondary education. By failing to offer this balance of information, we risk repeating the same mistakes of just a few years ago, where sixteen and seventeen year olds were brainwashed into believing that university was the only way forward thus shipped themselves off onto the first available degree course, only to emerge three years later and enter a job not remotely related to their qualification: the photography graduate working for a pharmaceutical company; the psychology graduate slaving away in a clothes shop. Now with astronomical tuition fees thus the gross amount of debt that a degree accumulates, this is an even more dangerous route to go down.
Alternatively, it is possible that we risk deterring students from university altogether. A bad experience at a masterclass aged seven may inadvertently influence a future decision on whether or not to apply for further study. For the sake of waiting a few years before introducing children to the world of higher education, this seems an extremely high price to pay.
Overall, I wish to conclude with clarification that I am not entirely slating Ebdon’s proposals. Yes, gaining university experience is a fantastic idea. Yes, pupils must be made aware of student life and the different degree options before they embark upon the terrifying and thrilling milestone that is university. But seven, it seems, is too young. I know of children who still use dummies at this age. What’s next: primary school taster sessions aged one? IQ tests before you’re out of nappies? I argue for a more moderate approach: perhaps introductions to the range of options available post sixteen would be more appropriate aged twelve, when children have had time to adjust to senior school and are taking their first gradual steps into the more adult world. Until then, let them dream – ballerinas and all.