Talking school dropouts round to university

Motivating disillusioned pupils to go to university defeats most experts. Now, relationship counsellors at Relate have been brought in to help. And as Lucy Hodges discovers, this novel approach is getting results
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Some 15-year-olds are so withdrawn and turned off the idea of continuing their studies after the age of 16 that teachers find it impossible to reach them. Robert (not his real name) was one such boy at Filey School, on the North Yorkshire coast, a part of England that has been left behind economically.

With a family that had no experience of higher education, he also had brothers and sisters who did badly at school; all were in the bottom set in their year group. But Robert had one great gift: he was outstandingly good at maths.

The school had tried to draw him out, without success. Then they were approached by Aimhigher, the government programme that tries to break down the barriers preventing young people going into higher education, and asked if they would take part in an extraordinary experiment.

At first the staff were sceptical. The experiment involved Relate, the organisation that sorts out couples' marriage and sex problems. How could counsellors from Relate conceivably manage to sort out young people's attitudes towards higher education?

It was explained that Relate was no longer just concerned with marriage guidance, that it offered advice on a range of issues and its counsellors were trained to help young people.

"It was something we didn't know about and we felt, yes, we ought to be involved anyway because we have a number of students who would benefit from such a project by doing something in a different way," says John Ward, deputy head of Filey School, which takes children aged 11 to 16 from North Yorkshire's fifth most deprived catchment area.

Last year six students from Year 11 were selected for the counselling and one of them was Robert. Through one-to-one counselling and some group workshops, the Relate counsellor was able to connect with him and encourage him to take maths beyond GCSE. Robert is now doing maths A-level and is thinking of joining the Army. Without the counselling, the school believes he would not have signed up for A-levels.

This experiment has also been taking place in Scarborough, and this year will be extended to Skipton and Keighley, areas considered to be "cool" spots for higher education in North Yorkshire. In other words, the number of young people going to university is below 16 per cent.

The students are hand-picked: they are those who are thought to be bright enough to go to university but who are turned off academic work and/or are doing badly at school.

"We are trying to explore the reasons underlying the pupils' behaviour and attitudes," says Pam Wilson, programme manager for Aimhigher in Yorkshire and Humberside. "These are people who are underachieving, have behaviour problems and some are in danger of being excluded from school.

"The main aims are to ensure that young people's choices about higher education are based on up-to-the-minute, correct information about the opportunities out there, and a realistic assessment of their own abilities."

Amazingly, this therapeutic approach to one of the most intractable problems in education - the difficulty in shifting the proportion of working-class students going to university - seems to be working.

All six children given the counselling at Filey School last year have moved on to further education this year. It is thought this would not have happened otherwise.

Another of the schools involved is Graham School in Scarborough, which is also considered to be in an area of deprivation. Last year it put nine pupils through the individual counselling sessions and the group therapy and saw "massive improvement" in the behaviour and performance of four of them, according to science teacher Bob Ward (no relation to John Ward). All those four are now doing A-levels.

The remainder of the group also improved their behaviour, though they didn't get the grades they were expected to at GCSE.

"Beforehand, these students were disaffected, they were not attending school and they were underperforming," he says.

Why are the Relate counsellors able to succeed where the schools' own are not? The answer, both schools believe, is that Relate is an outside body that is not associated with the school at all. As a result the pupils trust them more.

The project was the brainchild of Jenny Shaw, Aimhigher's previous manager in Yorkshire and Humberside, and Joe McGuiness, director of Relate in York and Harrogate. "When I read about Aimhigher, I immediately thought, yes, we can make an impact here," says McGuiness. "Our work was to convince other partners, as well as partner schools, of where we were coming from."

They did not take too much persuading. Last year four schools in North Yorkshire identified groups of young people who were seen as having the potential to go to university but probably wouldn't. These groups were given workshops lasting a couple of hours where they covered issues such as self-awareness, self-confidence, how to set targets, resolving conflicts and communication.

By talking in groups they discovered, for example, that there were problems they shared; they were no longer on their own. Some had suffered bereavement, others family breakdown or other family problems.

They learnt to relate to each other, to tolerate different viewpoints and to help each other with their problems. Confidential, one-to-one counselling sessions ran alongside the groupwork, and addressed the students' problems.

McGuiness would like to see the Relate project rolled out across the country and used by other Aimhigher groups. "So many young people are probably selling themselves short," he says. "It is not about driving them but helping them develop the confidence to say 'Yes, I can do this'."

But this kind of therapy is expensive. According to project manager Pam Wilson, it costs £4,000 to £5,000 per school. That is a good deal more than the cost of other parts of Aimhigher's programme, such as taking pupils to visit universities. "But it was so important that it was felt to be worth it," she says.

The money for this is channelled through the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce), which has allocated £87m to the Aimhigher programme this year, reducing to £80m next year. John Selby, Hefce's acting director of widening participation, believes it may be a wise investment. "It'll take some time to show, but it is valuable to try different kinds of intervention," he says. "One of the things that Aimhigher is about is trying different things and finding what works and then spreading that around."

Raising sights

Aimhigher began in 2004 to raise the sights of children who might not otherwise consider going to university. The proportion of young people from disadvantaged homes (social groups four to seven in official-speak) in higher education has remained stubbornly at around 28 per cent for the UK as a whole, according to performance indicators published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. It actually declined between 2003-4 and 2004-5.

Similarly, the proportion of young people from low-participation neighbourhoods, the "cold" spots such as North Yorkshire, at university has also stuck at around 13 per cent for the past few years - although the overall trend is in the upward direction.

Aimhigher hopes to improve those figures by a range of measures including mentoring pupils, visits to universities and summer schools.

John Selby of Hefce believes that Aimhigher has had a positive effect. It has meant universities now see widening participation as part of their mainstream business. In the old days only a few did.