Raising aspirations among the North Easts most vulnerable

Collaboration. The word crops up all the time. And some situations reveal why. Implanting the prospect of university in the mind of the most disadvantaged is one of them.

We know that students with certain backgrounds are much less likely to take up higher education. But to help them fulfil their potential, we need to develop a careful and sensitive understanding of their situation. They need cautious nurturing. We need to understand what they don’t understand.

We can only do this by working closely with the key people in their lives: carers, parents, schools, colleges, and local authorities.

It’s no secret that the North East suffers the lowest progression rates to higher education in England. And the North East Raising Aspiration Partnership was set up to bring a collaborative approach to this problem.

The partnership – one of thirty four HEFCE-funded National Networks for Collaborative Outreach across England  – has now worked with a very broad range of partners. This has helped it to increase its reach, success and confidence. It has also seen clear results.

Two strands of the partnership’s work stand out: its longstanding work with looked-after young people, and its more recent programme for Young Carers – ‘YouNE Cares’.

‘Choices Together’

The partnership’s ‘Choices Together’ programme has been running for ten years. It aims to help looked-after fifteen and sixteen year-olds (those in years 10 and 11) experience life as a student.

Over six weeks, students take part in academic sessions and skills workshops. They explore different university campuses, learn about student finance, student life and graduate employability. Taster sessions with academics and professionals help them to discover subjects they might have not considered.

The buy-in of partners

This sounds straightforward, but reaching these vulnerable students and making sure they stay on the programme comes with its own challenges.

Schools are often reluctant to identify looked-after children, and are right to be protective. But this rules out the way universities typically target their outreach work.

So the partnership creates, maintains and builds-on links with the twelve local authorities across the North East.

This means it has to work flexibly. Each authority works in a different way. For some the resources for working with children in care provided by the ‘Virtual School’ is ideal. For others this does not work.

The partnership has learned that it needs to find a key contact and get their buy-in. It also uses a charter which lays out the responsibilities of each partner throughout the programme.

The charter makes it clear that the local authority is responsible for recruitment, travel and contact from beginning to end. It also highlights key learning outcomes.


It’s also critical to keep everyone informed and make sure they understand the differences between partners. The partnership holds training sessions, and meetings with foster carers and local authorities before and during the programme. They also stay in regular contact by phone or by sending messages.

Looked-after children and their carers have a lot on their plate. Which means something like an after-school visit can easily go amiss. So the programme tries to make their life easier. It will give them simple instructions, and, if needed, cover the cost of travel.

Celebrating success

Understanding where the project has succeeded is just as important. Students and their carers build many skills. The project has been known to change a student’s direction, in more ways than one.

To celebrate these achievements, students, carers and support staff are invited to an event at the end of the six weeks. They also complete attitude evaluations before and after.

The most recent programme saw a 58 per cent increase in students believing they would fit in at university. 93 per cent agreed that university could help them get a good job.

Still, qualitative and informal feedback often speaks loudest.  One student attended the programme in consecutive years from 2014. They then continued to volunteer with the scheme. In September 2017, they will start at one of the universities they visited on the programme – something they never thought they would achieve.

Case study – Cheria


‘By completing the Choices Together programme, not only did I gain more confidence and more knowledge of the university lifestyle – I gained an interest in university and in the courses through the taster sessions.

‘[This] made me want to apply to uni myself and from doing so, I received three offers, as well as one being an unconditional. I have seen, not only myself, but other young people become inspired to go to uni when they thought they would have never had the chance to given their backgrounds; the programme also gives young people a sense of focus and direction for where they want their lives to go.’

Young carers 

Young carers are critical to this sort of success. The YouNE Cares programme, which began in January this year, recognises this and builds on the success of Choices Together.

It is the first university outreach programme delivered exclusively for Young Carers in the North East. Based on the publication ‘Supporting Students with Caring Responsibilities’ by Daniel Phelps at the Carers Trust, it aims to provide a progressive and inspirational programme to increase the confidence and aspirations of Young Carers, increasing their awareness of higher education’s accessibility.

The work has been developed closely with the Young Carers project groups in the North East, and, to date, has consisted of two university visits followed by a three-day residential.

On completion of the programme, 75 per cent of the attendees said that they are more likely to attend university in the future, and 90 per cent feeling they were now able to make informed decisions about their future.

No quick fix

Choices Together mirrors this sort of encouraging result. Recent analysis, using UCAS’ undergraduate tracking service – UCAS Strobe  – has highlighted that students who have completed Choices Together are more likely to attend higher education than the regional average.

Of course, the numbers on the programme are still small in comparison to large WP events. And it is clear that there is no quick fix when working with such vulnerable groups.

Nevertheless, the model of working closely, sensitively and flexibly with the right partners is having a clear and direct impact on the perceptions and aspirations of new students. We can see already how it is unlocking their potential.