With a history of collaboration dating back to the 1990s, Aimhigher West Midlands knows the importance of linking higher education outreach to the ever-shifting priorities of schools and colleges.
However, faced with unprecedented curriculum change, funding pressures and an unrelenting Ofsted focus on attainment-raising, school and college leaders have limited time and resources to allocate to building connections with local higher education providers. Opportunities to access university academics and campus facilities are also finite, with a vast number of schools all competing for time at the same institutions. This environment created a key challenge for our NCOP activities: how could we develop a programme that would sit within such a saturated market?
‘Getting students out of school to broaden horizons and boost aspirations is essential, but planning and funding it is problematic,’ says Damian McGarvey, Headteacher at Balaam Wood School in Birmingham, ‘and it needs to be consolidated with relevant follow-up work back in school.’
Dave Clayton is Deputy Headteacher at nearby Bartley Green School, in the ward with the highest gap between observed and expected participation in England. ‘Our task is to add cultural capital and impact on top of the desire, willingness and resilience of our pupils to achieve their very best in life. We have delivered quality aspirational sessions and guidance for some time, but no matter how good our in-school provision is, its impact on further education and higher education uptake has not been significant enough.’
Sze-Ting Lee, More Able and Gifted & Talented Coordinator at Ormiston Sandwell Community Academy, concurs: ‘There is a danger that financial pressures mean schools can’t fund the sorts of opportunities a programme like this offers. To address the low aspiration of some of our students we needed an in-house approach that would be an integral part of our work, and not a bolt-on.’
The Aimhigher Plus NCOP addresses these challenges in a number of ways. In line with many consortia, funding is allocated to enable a member of the school or college to act as a champion for the programme, with a budget to support engagement.
But we wanted to go further, and to develop a programme that each school and college could adapt and embed.
Aimhigher Progression Ambassadors (APAs) are recent graduates who work as mentors and facilitators in two schools or colleges, each for two days a week. APAs mentor selected students on a 1:1 and small group basis while working with the wider NCOP cohort deliver activities focused on raising aspiration, developing parental engagement and providing information, advice and guidance. They also facilitate access to programmes offered by higher education provider partners.
The work with schools and colleges is augmented by undergraduates delivering project-based activity and interventions commissioned from third-sector organisations. Schools and colleges also work with their APA and partner university to fund additional activity to meet specific needs.
In rural areas, where distance limits opportunities for physically embedding the programme, the model has been adapted with a cadre of graduate ambassadors and further education mentors who provide a blended programme of online, in-person and commissioned support.
Lee Gray, Headteacher of Studley High School in rural Warwickshire feels that ‘the NCOP has enabled us to widen our programme of activities to support pupils in finding out more about higher education and the exciting opportunities available to motivated young people.’
Feedback from the front line
Demand for the programme exceeded expectations, with 27 schools and colleges hosting APAs. A ‘part-embedded’ version has been developed to enable more to benefit from elements of the model and a ‘wrap-around’ programme has given all NCOP schools and colleges access to activity since March 2017. This rapid development has required significant commitment from all partners, but progress is encouraging.
Ormiston Sandwell Community Academy’s NCOP students are flagged on the Information Management System and Aimhigher is linked to existing More Able, Stretch and Challenge, and Parent Partnership activity. ‘Aimhigher Plus is now fully integrated into the structure of our academy,’ says Sze-Ting Lee. ‘From coaching sessions to inspirational university visits, students are aiming high and aspirations thriving. The whole academy has embraced this initiative and teaching staff are equipped with the tools and understanding to propel our students to a brighter future.’
Bartley Green School is delighted with progress. ‘This has refocussed our efforts,’ says Dave Clayton. ‘With the support of Aimhigher we feel our tool box is now much bigger and we can make a true and lasting impact on social mobility in our area.’
At Balaam Wood School, Damian McGarvey is impressed. ‘Our APA Kate shows high degrees of independence and initiative, and has formed strong relationships. I’ve watched her lead sessions, and her powerful presence captured some of our hard-to-reach parents.’
Parent, Sue James, values the support her son, Joshua, has received at Halesowen College: ‘Your APA, Cliona, has been supporting Josh with his personal statement. He’s recently been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition and without her very informative, helpful and professional support his statement would not have been as good as it was… a brilliant scheme.’
As the Aimhigher Manager, I am delighted with progress. The NCOP has allowed us to forge new relationships with young people, parents and partners that go far beyond superficial ‘one-off’ encounters. We hope the programme will be extended so we can build on this strong start.