When we began our work at The Brilliant Club, it was part-project, part stab-in-the-dark. Jonny Sobczyk and Simon Coyle, who founded the organisation, ran the pilot at the school where I was teaching at the time and, taken by the idea and the possibility of setting up an actual organisation of our own, I decided to join them in the venture. We attained charity status in early 2012 and, just over 2 years on, are very proud of the scale and quality of the work we are doing across 4 regions of the UK (London & South East; Midlands; East of England; North East England).
The problem that we exist to solve is a very specific one within the broader debates and activity around social mobility: at highly selective universities the number of students from non-selective state schools, and in particular from the poorest backgrounds, is disproportionately low. The Sutton Trust provides a swathe of research on the issues, slicing through the data in a number of different ways – here is one particularly pertinent example about uni progression rates by individual school – and also making recommendations. The Higher Education Funding Council for England also analyses students’ secondary to HE progression rates. In 2010, when setting up The Brilliant Club, we looked at their report on trends in youth HE participation. A few key trends and findings stick out for me personally:
- In 2010, at the 25 most academically selective universities in England, only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the student intake was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils, and just over a quarter of the intake (25.8%) from independent schools. This proportion may be changing, but only slowly and with huge regional variation.
- 80% of disadvantaged young people – those from low HE participation neighbourhoods – live in the vicinity of a highly-selective university, but only 1 in 25 of these disadvantaged young people attends such a university (compared to 1 in 4 from the highest HE participation neighbourhoods). (Link here, page 5)
Within these two research findings, we had a defined problem and a potential solution: given the proximity of schools serving low participation communities and universities, there would surely be a way of building good links between them. What was needed was a scalable way of doing so that focused on meaningful academic experience to develop realistic aspirations and improve attainment, giving timely and accurate advice, and creating a precedent for progression to highly selective HE courses for pupils from low-participation backgrounds. Of course there is a huge amount of widening participation and fair access activity already ongoing – it is a growing part of what universities do (look at the latest WP budgets for next year here). We wanted to add to the effort as the problem is big enough to warrant multiple solutions and collaborations.
We have found that the PhD and post-doctoral research community is perfectly placed to be this link. Our PhD tutors – selected at an assessment centre that looks for their ability to communicate and their motivation for working with young people – have a wealth of subject expertise, a passion for their area of study, extensive experience of universities (and in many cases the world of work). They design courses for small groups of pupils that the school will select to take part in the programme. The pupils are selected using a mixture of contextual factors (such as eligibility for FSM and parental history of HE) and teacher discretion. The courses are based on an aspect of the PhD tutor’s research and will be categorised as ‘Arts & Humanities’, ‘STEM’ or ‘Social Science’. From the pupils’ point of view, it is like being taught a university module with a final assignment at the end that will be graded in a university-style (1st, 2.1 etc.). All courses include trips to our partner universities. We work with Year 5s upwards because we believe that starting the conversation with pupils when they are younger helps give them time to inform themselves about progression to university before it becomes necessary for them to make any decisions. At crucial transition points between key stages, starting young helps equip pupils with some very important perspectives on where their education can take them.
I want it to be normal for academics to be seen in schools and for pupils from all backgrounds to think of university – including the most highly-selective courses and institutions – to be their right and entitlement. It is rewarding, therefore, when the conversation with the pupils we work with moves on from “what is university?” to “which course would I enjoy the most?” to “I wonder whether I would want to do a PhD myself?”. And at the same time, it is incredibly rewarding to see what our PhD tutors get from it. As a lapsed teacher, I didn’t quite realise initially how exciting it is for an academic to teach their particular area of research as opposed to a general ‘introduction to…’ undergraduate course. Moreover, the Research Councils of the UK have a strategy of Public Engagement that encourages researchers to take their specialisms to non-expert audiences. Some of our PhD tutors have gone on to become teachers (including through http://www.researchersinschools.org – the new ITT partnership launching in September). Others have remained as teachers and researchers in academia or moved to industry. We hope their professions are enriched by a more detailed understanding and experience of the state education sector.
The Brilliant Club Inaugural Conference will be taking place at King’s College London on Thursday 24th July, bringing together academics, teachers, widening participation professionals and third-sector organisations like our own. It is fully booked, but we have a livestream from the main lecture theatre which will capture the panel debates and keynotes. At this conference we hope to begin to answer the question:
How can universities and schools help pupils from low-HE participation backgrounds secure places and succeed at highly-selective universities?
Finally, can you find your school on this POLAR 3 dataset? How likely young people are to participate in HE varies across the UK mapped out by small local area.