Opening doors: Inspiring young people to shape their own futures

Improving access to higher education has been a widely debated topic in the education sector for many years and one brought firmly into the spotlight with the controversy surrounding the recent A-level and BTec results U-turn.

Back in 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council for England reported that fewer than one in five young people from the most disadvantaged areas enter higher education, and while this has improved slightly in the last 10 years to one in four, it still lags significantly behind the one in two progression rate seen for the most advantaged.

Currently, higher education participation rates are at an all-time high in the UK, as reported in Wonkhe, and strides are being made by schools, universities, educators and stakeholders to close the social mobility gap and widen access to higher education for all.

Despite this, is enough being done to open doors for young people, raise awareness of opportunity, channel aspiration and support them through a lifelong learning journey to help transform their lives?

“The situation regarding A-level and BTec results, which left many students feeling confused and let down, shows just how vital it is that we continue to do all we can to ensure young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are informed about higher education and empowered to achieve their potential,” says Krisha Bainham, Head of Widening Access at the University of Derby.

“Our promise at Derby is that higher education should be equitable, inclusive and open to all who have the ability, ambition and desire to learn and progress.”

Widening Access at Derby

The University’s widening access approach and philosophy was developed in response to government concerns around the attainment and progression of disadvantaged learners, and that of other under-represented cohorts, to higher education. Krisha explores this in her study, The impacts and benefits of employing a progressive and sustained approach to outreach programmes for universities: a case study – the progress to success framework

Engaging with children as young as nine, the University’s Widening Access team works with schools within Derby city and Derbyshire to provide outreach activity designed to improve attainment, support the development of young people’s ambitions and raise awareness of higher education and alternative progression opportunities.

Students sat around the table listening to a teacher

Specifically under its Progress to Success Framework, a progressive, sustained outreach programme, the University provides activities to pupils from areas of disadvantage across the city and county, ranging from experience days, mindfulness sessions and summer schools, as well as working with ‘hard-to-reach groups’ such as looked-after children and cohorts of learners who require additional support.

“There are new groups of students who we are working with now who we would never have thought needed additional support a few years ago, such as children of service families and those with caring responsibilities, who are heavily under-represented within higher education,” explains Krisha.

“Through our activities, we engage with specific strands of learners, for example, our Raising the Grade programme supports those who need a revision boost to achieve key exam grades, and our HE Can programme, specifically developed for white working-class boys, identified as one of the groups least likely to go on to university.

“But this isn’t just about working with young people to get them to go on to higher education or, in fact, to choose to study at Derby. It’s also about increasing their exposure to new experiences and fun, innovative ways of learning, helping them to re-engage in the classroom, to make informed decisions about their futures and to transform their lives.

“Our vision ensures that we focus on the needs of local children, working collaboratively with schools and organisations to address entrenched social mobility issues in the city and county, and support all the young people we engage with to reach their full potential.”

And targeted activity, such as that taking place within the Progress to Success Framework, is proving to have a direct positive impact. “We are ranked second in the country for fair access in the HEPI [Higher Education Policy Institute] Widening Participation Benchmarks, which demonstrates our dedication to widening access,” says Krisha. “And, in 2018-19, more than 5,000 pupils participated in the Progress to Success framework, of which 77.2% were from low-participation neighbourhoods, 34.6% were Black, Asian and minority ethnic, and 29.8% were eligible for free school meals.

“This shows we are targeting our activities at those who would benefit most. However, our current challenge is ensuring we maintain this engagement during the pandemic, at a time when we know many young people, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, are struggling to access technology or find suitable spaces to study.”

Krisha Bainham smiling at the camera

Our vision ensures that we focus on the needs of local children, working collaboratively with schools and organisations to address entrenched social mobility issues in the county, and support all the young people we engage with to reach their full potential.

Krisha Bainham
Head of Widening Access, University of Derby

Derby Opportunity Area

In 2016, Derby was identified by the government as an Opportunity Area. However, the city has used this positively as an opportunity to work closer together to help improve social mobility, focusing on raising educational standards from early years, through school and beyond.

“It’s a challenging and complicated picture,” adds Krisha. “There are many groups of children to engage, as well as their parents and carers, but, by coming together as a city and county, we are seeing positive outcomes. In 2016, we completely changed the way we worked and this has been beneficial in terms of pooling resources and funding and having a joint collaborative mission to improve standards of education for our young people.

“The work of the Derby Opportunity Area Board, which is chaired by our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kathryn Mitchell, has helped us to drive our social mobility mission forward, along with the University being a lead partner for DANCOP (the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme), a collaborative partnership of higher education institutions and colleges.

“The biggest impact we have seen has been just how strong our relationships with schools are now and, for the first time, we are working with all state secondary schools in the city.”

Neil Wilkinson, Executive Head Teacher of The Bemrose School in Derby – an all-through school that provides primary and secondary education – says working with the city and University has positively impacted his school.

“Since my inception as Executive Head Teacher, I have had excellent interaction with the University and its Widening Access team and that has helped develop the aspirations of my children and has been a catalyst to our school being more successful," he says.

“We have a large proportion of students from challenging socio-economic backgrounds, which means, for many, university isn’t on their or their family’s radar. However, by linking in closely with the University, we have been able to give students exposure to opportunities they never would have experienced before and have made them realise that they can go on to achieve great things whether that be further study or not. And that it isn’t a pipe dream, their future is within grasp.”

Students sat at a table doing work
A student sat working on a computer getting help from a teacher

Raising the aspirations of young people

However, there is still more work to be done in raising the ambitions of young people, according to Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, who, at the NEON summit on widening access and mobility, said universities need to ensure they are “going the extra mile to raise standards and aspirations in schools” and that “true social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path.”

In order to address this, schools and universities, along with the regions they are situated in, need to open children’s eyes to greater experiences, says educationalist Richard Gerver.

“One of my great frustrations is that people think opportunity comes purely from academia – that it’s just about persuading children to get through their GCSEs, A-levels and into higher education,” explains Richard, a former head teacher, a University of Derby graduate and now Chair of the University’s Alumni Membership Advisory Board.

“We are missing a major step here, which is that a lot of children come from environments where they have very limited, if any, aspirations because they don’t have access to experiences that make their hearts beat faster.

“We can’t just tell children to have aspiration and promise them that if they engage in the learning journey academically then they will be set for the future. We have to give them experiences.

“We need to start looking at the city of Derby as a classroom, as a school campus. We have an incredible industrial heritage so we should be guaranteeing that every child in our toughest schools gets to spend time at Rolls-Royce or Bombardier, experience a live theatrical event at the theatre or gets to watch sport at the cricket club or football stadium.

“Education is, first and foremost, about helping young people to dream. We have to help broaden young people’s experiences so they start to dream about jobs, careers and opportunities they didn’t even know existed.”

One of the greatest keys to opening doors for young people is preparing them for uncertainty, says Richard. He feels this is essential in current times of the coronavirus pandemic when schools have been forced to close and Britain faces a “lost generation of children”, in the words of former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw.

“The problem is that we continue to prepare young people to live lives of certainty, because we are still continuing the story that if you get a job and work really hard, you will have a career for the next 20-30 years of your life. That has been dissipating more and more, yet we are still selling that narrative,” stresses Richard.

“Covid-19 is yet another profound example of this. Over the coming months, when the economic support schemes come to an end and huge swathes of people find themselves without a job, having worked all their lives to do the right thing in the right way, they are going to find themselves in difficult circumstances because people simply weren’t prepared to live in this very different world.

“We need to focus far more explicitly on developing curiosity, collaboration, teamwork and entrepreneurial skills in our young people – the stuff that is still being batted away as soft psychological nonsense – otherwise we will beautifully prepare people for a world that no longer exists.”

Two students sat around a table with a teacher helping them with work.

This is echoed by Jo Ward, Head of Quality Standards and Performance at Derby City Council, who says the pandemic is the current biggest challenge impacting the education and future of young people: “The employment market will change for everyone, but past crises suggest that it will be young people who are impacted the most negatively. For example, those who were considering apprenticeships may find that those opportunities have now disappeared. Young people will need to be flexible and able to learn quickly.

“Prior to this, Derby has a complex population of young people. Some are very advantaged and have thrived through school and on into further and higher education. Others experience great poverty – financial, in their communities and in aspiration. These are not quick fixes, but several Opportunity Area projects have aligned to this, such as work looking at mental health or on pupil mobility between schools, which is a start to addressing such challenges.”

So, is now the time for change? As stated by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, in a speech to the Social Market Foundation, the “unprecedented challenge of the pandemic has made it even more important to invest in long-term change and to think seriously about the post-16 education system we need in this country”.

“Gavin Williamson has asserted that focus should be on the development of high quality vocational, technical and digital skills and this announcement should be largely welcomed, particularly if it brings real investment and creates genuine choice,” says Krisha.

“However, there is no one magic element which will address the entrenched social immobility which we see. What is required is a collaborative approach across all agencies and, most importantly, sustained effort, continuing to look at the whole student life cycle when it comes to disadvantaged students, and working with young people on an individual level to discover what fires their imagination, grows their self-belief and helps shape their ambitions.”