‘Ever since I was a child, I wanted to go to university’. Clichés aside for some, this may be a fact of life, but not all students have the same exposure to higher education.
Southmoor Academy is located in Sunderland, where students face significant disadvantages due to the area’s geographical location and socioeconomic makeup. The Sutton Trust (2018) found that of all Sunderland students progressing to Higher Education, only 16% went to a Russell Group Institution, and 0.3% went to Oxford or Cambridge. As the ‘Aspirations and OxNet North East Coordinator’ at Southmoor, my role involves raising aspirations and supporting ‘university readiness’ across all key stages.
‘Southmoor Scholars’ is a 1-year academic programme for high achieving Year 10 students, as waiting until Sixth Form is too late and cannot change the status quo significantly enough (Alakeson, 2005). Each element has been built around an extensive literature review, and takes inspiration from Bourdieu’s notion of ‘Cultural Capital’, helping students to build a portfolio of ‘socially recognised forms of excellence’ (Robbins, 2004).
The aims are:
- To embed a love of learning
- To improve high-level study skills beyond GCSE
- To raise aspirations to University study
Term 1a – I want to be a Scholar: Students submit an application.
Term 1b – Getting inspired: Weekly guest lectures are delivered by academics from universities across the country. This imbues a love of learning, without a focus on simply passing exams (AlphaPlus, 2012). Topics have included: Skeleton archaeology, transgender identity within literature, comic book drawing, and exploring astrophysics in an inflatable planetarium.
Term 2a – Further inspiration
Term 2b – Becoming an expert: Students design an academic project – an essay or artefact – supported by a study skills programme. This is based on the EPQ, which is a good predictor for achieving a first-class degree (Gill and Rodeiro, 2014). Past projects have included an artistic depiction of historical understandings of the brain and an evaluation of LGBT representation in ‘Glee’.
Term 3a – Show and tell: Students present their findings to the Head in a roundtable event in order to celebrate success – a key component of solidifying their capability of aiming high (LSC, 2009).
Term 3b – My time to shine: The year is interspersed with exclusive university visits, including Oxford and Cambridge, so institutions do not feel like they are ‘worlds away’ (Reay et. al., 2001). The programme culminates in a graduation event at Durham University, complete with gowns, mortarboards and scrolls. Families are invited to the event, to open up a dialogue at home (Montacute Cullinane, 2018).
Measuring the efficacy of our programme is key, and we use before and after questionnaires, looking at students’ self-perception in relation to love of learning, study skills and aspirations. This Type 2 evidence shows increased self-efficacy in statements like ‘I have excellent subject knowledge’ and ‘I hope to apply to a top university’. This has been a good starting point, as questionnaires have proven to be successful in monitoring large-scale projects such as the Brilliant Club Programme and the Villiers Park Inspiring Excellence Programme.
Nevertheless, the EEF (2018) points out that causal or ‘Type 3’ evidence is particularly lacking in aspirations research. It would be useful to draw comparisons with other students of similar calibre in the year group, who were not part of the Southmoor Scholars programme. Equally, a longitudinal study charting the progress of Year 10 students through to their post-18 destinations would be valuable in establishing a long-term link.
It is no secret that school staff are extremely busy, and this is where TASO could step in – to support with expertise and resources, allowing schools to develop efficient in-house evaluation. We would value the tools to kick-start large-scale quantitative analysis of questionnaires and advice on planning rigorous qualitative research such as interviews to aid with triangulation of different findings. Such evaluation would provide important ‘proof’ that aspirations and university readiness should play an important part in the school curriculum.