October 12, 2023, by Emma Thorne

Opening young minds to the power of education

In IntoUniversity’s 20th anniversary year, Pete Bruce, Head of Student Recruitment Outreach in the university’s Widening Participation and Outreach team, looks at the impact that its partnership with the University of Nottingham has had on helping to build confidence, raise the aspirations and positively impact on the long term futures of young people in some of the city’s most challenged communities.

“We believe that universities and colleges can benefit from closer working with schools and charities to address the persistent gap in participation and success between those from the most advantaged backgrounds and their more disadvantaged peers.”

These was how John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, introduced the launch of the consultation on the new approach to regulating equality of opportunity in higher education back in October last year. This consultation led to the creation of the new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register and a new framework for the Access and Participation Plans which set out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.

Just eight months earlier, the University of Nottingham had celebrated 10 years of partnership with IntoUniversity, a national education charity which runs an innovative programme supporting young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to attain their chosen aspiration. Now with nearly 40 centres throughout the UK, IntoUniversity has grown in both scope and reputation to become a leading third sector organisation in its field. IntoUniversity (currently celebrating its 20 year anniversary) operates a centre-based model and its programme includes after-school Academic Support sessions that help young people to become curious and independent learners; the FOCUS programme which opens young people’s minds to the power of education to transform their lives; and the Mentoring programme which provides students with one-to-one support from a role model who can offer invaluable guidance. Here in Nottingham the Widening Participation and Outreach team has also developed a bespoke family learning programme in conjunction with IntoUniversity.

At the University of Nottingham, we are incredibly proud to support IntoUniversity’s work which is based in learning centres serving three of our communities – St Ann’s, Hyson Green and the Broxtowe estate, all in constituencies where child poverty rates are particularly high. Over the course of this partnership so far, more than 17,000 local young people have received support from IntoUniversity and encouragement to do well at school and go on to university or another chosen ambition.

Building confidence

But what does this all mean on the ground? Well, let me tell you about a young person in Nottingham – we’ll call her Halima – not her real name. Back in 2015, when Halima started in Year 7, she had the dubious pleasure of having me as her German teacher. She was possibly one of the quietest and least confident students I have ever taught. While she always got her work done and did it well, she would never offer an answer in class and if ever I directed a question to her, she always looked as if she wanted the ground to swallow her up.

However, as the year went on, I observed Halima gradually gaining confidence and really finding her feet in class. Shortly after the Easter of that academic year, I joined the Widening Participation team here at the University of Nottingham and visited one of the three local IntoUniversity centres as part of my role. I was delighted to find that Halima had been a regular attendee at their after-school Academic Support after-school sessions and had been receiving one-to-one mentoring from one of our committed university students throughout that academic year, with a specific focus on developing her confidence. Meeting Halima again that June at the IntoUniversity mentoring celebration on campus and chatting to her family, who were clearly thrilled with the difference that the IntoUniversity mentoring and academic support sessions were making to her, was a huge privilege.

Now, I tell that story as I think it really captures the impact that place-based work can have on the young people in our less advantaged communities. Would Halima have come along to weekly academic support sessions if we held them on the university campus? Difficult to know for sure, but I suspect not. Would she have travelled to campus to receive the weekly one-to-one mentoring from a university student? I very much doubt it. These young people turn up week in, week out at the IntoUniversity centres largely because the centres are based in, and have become an established and well-respected part of, their communities.

One-to-one mentoring

Our collaborative partnership with IntoUniversity has enabled us to expand significantly our outreach work and to engage with young people to support the ongoing work of addressing educational inequality in our city. Over the course of the partnership so far, several hundred of our university student volunteers have committed several thousands of hours of one-to-one mentoring at the IntoUniversity centres in the heart of these communities, countless academics and student groups have delivered academic sessions at these centres and, as a result of the partnership, we’ve welcomed thousands of young people and their families onto campus.

In terms of impact, IntoUniversity reports annually that, here in Nottingham, significantly more young people that they work with (all of whom come from a “widening participation” background) progress to Higher Education than the local averages of the areas in which their centres are based. And, over the years of the partnership, nearly 500 young people who have been involved with IntoUniversity centres have ended up studying at the University of Nottingham. Over 170 of those young people attended IntoUniversity Nottingham centres.

I genuinely believe that if we want local young people to come and study at our (or any) university, and local communities to understand what we do and why, we can’t just sit and wait for them to cross our thresholds or drive through our entrance barriers; we surely need to get out into our communities, engage with local people and look for ways to work together to improve lives and to deliver transformative change. Our partnership with IntoUniversity is a great example of this.

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