“Widening access and improving participation in higher education are a crucial part of our mission. Our aim is to promote and provide the opportunity of successful participation in higher education to everyone who can benefit from it. This is vital for social justice and economic competitiveness.” HEFCE (www.hefce.ac.uk/widen/)
Concerns about student finance may prey on the minds of many prospective HE applicants but to be honest by the time they are really thinking in this much detail about going to university it’s a bit late. If a you have the ability, believe in yourself and really want to achieve something then generally you will find a way to reach your goal. As Russell Group Director General Dr Wendy Piatt said: “If you’re good enough to get in, you can afford to go.” (www.russellgroup.ac.uk/russell-group-latest-news)
However if you lack confidence and sell yourself short then even if you have the ability you may not even start your ‘journey’ for fear of failing. Nowhere is this more true than in encouraging pupils, particularly those who are ‘first generation Higher Education applicants’, to aim high and apply for courses at any of the Russell Group universities (www.russellgroup.ac.uk). So what can be done?
The process has to start early and be sustained – stepping stones to excellence. In the past a great deal of effort has been put into encouraging VI form students to ‘aim high’ and valuable work is often done lower down the key stages particularly with GCSE pupils. There is a lot to be said however for going even further and laying the first stones in key stage 3.
The Villiers Park Educational Trust (www.villierspark.org.uk) have just started to offer a two day residential course for Y9 pupils with the aim of widening participation. This is a new venture and runs alongside their extensive programme of courses aimed at GCSE/GCE students. The core activity during our course involved pupils from about six schools working in teams to produce a bid to host the Olympics on behalf of several South American countries. Alongside this the pupils took part in several interventions designed to help them think about their learning and how to approach decisions regarding the GCSE options process. The level of thought and discussion generated during the process was impressive. However just as important was the chance to raise awareness of routes into HE and in particular the opportunities available for the most able pupils at Britain’s best universities.
Laura McGarty the Schools Liaison Officer for Pembroke and St. Catharine’s Colleges (http://www.caths.cam.ac.uk) spoke in detail about routes into HE and life at Cambridge and discussion with the pupils later revealed that they had found both the talk and the following tour around Pembroke really useful. The undergraduate guides did a first rate job of putting the pupils at ease and sharing their experiences really did lay to rest the myth that ‘only posh kids go to Cambridge’.