New school of thought for higher education

Projects to widen participation at universities are reaping rewards up and down the country. Peter Taylor-Whiffen reports on two examples
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The Independent Online

EAST THAMES

"London has the highest proportion of graduates of anywhere in the UK," says The Open University's London regional director Rosemary Mayes. "But a lot of people don't realise that London also has the highest proportion of people with no qualifications." The OU has teamed up with four other universities in London to help young people achieve the educational standards they need in order to think of higher education as a realistic goal. It's all under the umbrella of the Government's Aimhigher initiative to increase participation in higher education, particularly among those with no family tradition of university attendance.

This is true of many of the school pupils and their families in the area of the city in which the consortium is focusing its work. The London East Thames Gateway Aimhigher Partnership reaches out to schools in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Redbridge, Barking & Dagenham and Havering - boroughs which, although already producing many pupils that go on successfully to higher education, also include some of London's - and Britain's - most socially deprived areas.

"A lot of these pupils will be first generation higher education," says OU project officer Sue Mueller. "Going to university is something that has simply not previously been seen as an option by them or their families."

Aimhigher tries to ensure pupils get the full picture about higher education, by working with schools, further education colleges, employers and advisory services. Although The Open University and its London-based staff play an important role, Aimhigher is not about pushing the OU option. Rather, it's about promoting the general idea of higher education. Hence the partnership with City University, the University of East London, Queen Mary University and London Metropolitan University.

"We talk to teachers and offer one-to-one advice sessions with pupils," says Sue Mueller. "More than 50 per cent of my time is spent going into schools and listening to what they already do and seeing how we can help them identify and fill any gaps. It is about enabling young people to make informed choices, not only about higher education but about their own skills and abilities."

Jenny Fox, a schools career advisor based at City University, agrees. "The partnership is about promoting different pathways into higher education. It helps to be in a group of institutions that can work together while showing all the different options," she says.

Aimhigher staff are put in touch with schools via a borough co-ordinator before project workers establish more direct links with teachers. Such locally based research is key in a city of such varying academic aspirations - average figures across London show the city has met the Government's target of at least 50 per cent of school children entering higher education, but in some areas (notably parts of East London) that figure is significantly lower. In Barking and Dagenham, for instance, it is currently only 14 per cent.

Project workers are helping to improve these figures with a series of initiatives involving individual schools and entire boroughs. Aimhigher uses school visits, open days and a travelling roadshow to reach school students as young as 13 or 14, while encouraging those in Year 11 to join week-long summer schools that point them towards specific types of higher education courses. It also helps teach pupils the reality of following particular careers.

"A large number of youngsters in east London have ambitions to work in the City," says Sue Mueller. "So we've organised various events at which staff from some of the major financial institutions have spoken about what their jobs involved, and how their education got them there."

Bob Littlewood at Little Ilford school in Newham says his students were very enthusiastic about the scheme. "Pupils tend to be very positive about things that are not part of the average day," he says. "Aimhigher brings something different and really gets the children motivated.

"And it's really varied. Sometimes we get people in from local businesses, or other role models- recently we had a visit from Oxford University students who had gone to school in Newham.

"On one day we had a roadshow where students could learn about media training, and we recently had a theatre company put on a play for us about the choices you can make. It's all about showing children the possibility of what they can do."

And what of the future? The Aimhigher project was due to run until 2006 but funding has now been extended to 2008. Rosemary Mayes is optimistic that with so many schools and colleges involved, the scheme can continue to benefit youngsters well beyond that. "I think we've done very well. We've seen how much this scheme has raised young people's aspirations and motivated them towards pathways which perhaps had never before occurred to them.

YORKSHIRE

If your dad was a miner, and his dad was a miner, and his dad was a miner, you might reasonably expect to have your career pretty much mapped out.

But the closure of Britain's coalmines and the downturn of other once proud industries forced many people to do what had seemed less than a generation ago to be unthinkable - find another way to earn a living.

"Widening participation is a long-term project because some of the work we're doing is about changing mindsets," says Nick Berry, director of The Open University's Yorkshire regional centre, which has a team running a variety of initiatives across the county. "In some parts of this region boys grew up expecting to go down the pit. Now the pits are gone, but because they were always there, people need a bit of time to see the alternatives."

In some areas of the county only about 20 per cent of school pupils currently progress to higher education, according to widening participation worker Rebecca Moore, who adds: "There are pockets, such as Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, where it's lower still. Historically people didn't go to university because they simply didn't need to."

Through Aimhigher and the OU's own Widening Participation Project, she gives presentations and works one-to-one to show prospective learners aged from 13 to 30 how they could get into higher education, and which courses and ways of learning would be right for them.

"The Open University is often not seen as a local option," she says. "We're changing that." But although she is employed by the OU, her remit is not just to direct people there, but to give them impartial advice. "When it seems it would suit them better to go to a 'bricks and mortar' university, I'll tell them that," she says.

Richard Kemp, who has a parallel role to Rebecca Moore's, but in South Yorkshire, says: "We're working towards a change of mindset. This region has a very low history of progression to higher education. Parents can be reluctant to encourage their children in this direction and students can be reluctant to travel."

In North Yorkshire, the challenges are different. "This is England's largest county and more than 90 per cent is sparsely populated," said Jane Pinner, an OU widening access development worker who works with education and training providers, the voluntary and business sectors and the government's youth advisory service Connexions to promote learning opportunities and share information. It is a two-way process. "We make sure these organisations are getting up-to-date information, but I'm also looking at existing programmes to see if OU courses can plug into them," she said.

Aimhigher's goal, set in 2004, is to increase participation in higher education by five per cent over the next five years. But although wider participation can be visible, its effects can be difficult to quantify. "These things take four or five years of hard work before we see the results to build up people's confidence," says Nick Berry. "But we are making a huge positive difference to people's lives."

For more information about the national widening participation projects visit www.aimhigher.ac.uk

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