A state of mind why attitudes and beliefs matter for widening participation

The challenge is clear: HEFCE data tells us that retention rates are lower for these students. We can also see significant differences in degree outcomes compared with their peers.

To prepare them for university, the higher education sector has focussed, traditionally, on the systems and learning structures necessary to impart the ‘right’ skills and knowledge. Inclusive curriculums, reflecting on pedagogy, student mentoring schemes, training frontline staff, software that analyses student performance – all are useful steps to create an engaging environment for non-traditional students.

But is this enough for a student to succeed? Attain? Progress? Gain graduate employment?

There’s good reason to think we need to go one step further. The mindsets and attitudes of students affect whether or not they make the most of their experience at university. They also make or break an aspirational culture.

At Youth at Risk, we have seen just how much working with underlying perceptions and beliefs can make a difference.

Challenging assumptions – a Case Study

Since 2013, we have worked with Kingston University to devise the SPARKS programme. This started out by trying to improve the progression rates, engagement and sense of belonging for students, particularly BME students, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

The programme ran in two stages: an initial outreach phase, followed by a three-day intensive personal development workshop, which carefully teased out the underlying core beliefs and attitudes of the students.

Beliefs such as ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I don’t fit in’, ‘I don’t have the confidence’ and ‘I don’t belong here’, which have developed unconsciously over a number of years were brought to the surface for students to examine. Skilled trainers supported students to question their core beliefs, and identify how they might be affecting their success and potential.

We then also ran day-long follow-up training to make sure the changes to their behaviour stood the test of time.

Is that ‘just the way I am’?

‘Moving to London was going to be the making of me everyone said – I was ambitious, one of the first in my family to be going to Uni and I seemed to be right on the cusp of becoming the person I had always wanted to be.

Flash-forward [and]: I’m now 40 grand in debt, all my savings are blown, I’ve spent the majority of my time at Uni being locked behind closed doors, suffering from chronic and severe depression.

What is my story now? The wealth of information I was given over [the Youth at Risk] three days is now transforming into something concrete in my life.

One very important insight for me was the realisation that all my life, I have defined myself not only by the labels and things that have been said to me directly, but also by the labels and words I have given to myself.

I would use these labels as a justification for not doing anything about the state of my life because ‘that’s just the way I am’: ‘I’m too depressed’, ‘I have social anxiety’, ‘I can’t do that because I have trauma issues’.

I think though, the most unexpected yet most important break-through I have had on this course is meeting [the group]. I came to this course expecting to go home after a couple of days with a few tips on how to reach my goals which I’d soon probably forget in a week or two anyway and never get round to putting into practice.

But what [the group has] given me has been more than I could have ever dreamed of – not just in terms of the content of the course which is helping to slowly transform me and my life, but through the friendships I have made and the immense kindness and joy I have experienced being part of the SPARKS programme.’

Did it work?

All the anecdotal evidence from the programme has shown that the work had a profound effect on developing the potential of the students who took part. And Kingston’s data has supported these findings.

The university found that students undertaking the programme are consistently and significantly more likely to progress to the next academic year than for those who did not participate. Since 2013-14, year on year overall, participants’ progression rates have been 8 per cent higher than those students who did not take part.

And in 2013-15 all student participants from level 4 progressed.

The power of the mind

Providing skills and knowledge will always be essential. But to really make a difference to performance, attainment and progression, we need to get to the root of – and tackle – perceptions and mindsets.

Supporting students from widening participation backgrounds build resilience and confidence, as well as an awareness of self-limiting beliefs, helps them to seize the opportunities available within higher education.


For more information about Youth at Risk and its work in HE, contact Kaljit Virdee, tel 07471 036785