Schools should encourage young gifted and talented (G&T) students to aim high, as many able children who do not have a history of university education in their family may dismiss it, says Deborah Eyre

Last month saw many young people starting university. In some cases, they will be the first person in the family to follow this route and to aim for degree-level qualifications.

Over the past 10 years, the government has committed to ensuring that more students from non-university families go on to higher education. To this end, it is investing £239.5m over the next four years in widening participation through the Aim Higher Partnerships and Excellence Hubs. Despite this considerable investment, progress towards increasing participation from these students has been disappointing. Indeed, at the highest level, eg, Oxford and Cambridge, it has been very slow. This is a serious issue for G&T educators.

For students on the G&T register, university should be the expected destination, unless they make an informed choice to follow an alternative route. Since the benefits accrued by university education are greatest in the leading universities, those capable of getting there should be encouraged to opt accordingly; and it is the responsibility of the school/college to make this a reality.

For first-time university families, there are five clearly definable stages to the process:

1. Setting expectations. When a student is placed on the G&T register at the start of secondary school – or subsequently – the school needs to make explicit its expectations. Work done under the Excellence in Cities initiative created strong models for practice. A school in Salford, for example, arranged individual meetings with students and their parents to explain that the student was capable of achieving the grades needed for university, and that the school would work with the parents to try to secure this outcome. The student meanwhile should work hard, safe in the knowledge that s/he had the ability to succeed. 

2. Getting the student onto university campuses. For families with little experience of universities, they can be alien places. Merely taking students (and preferably their families) to visit the campus can help to make it more familiar. Families who came to Warwick as part of the GOAL programme were fascinated by the sheer scale of the campus and its facilities. So, during the secondary school years, students should be given the opportunity to experience a number of different universities as well as working more closely with their local one.

3. Experiencing university learning. Students can experience university learning throughout their primary and secondary schooling. University staff may work within the school/college and students may study online or on university campuses. This all helps to make university-style learning more familiar and stresses the joy of deep engagement with a specific subject. As the student gets older, these experiences need to be more frequent and more representative of the undergraduate course experience. The residential summer school is the most complete version of this and it really does
help students to see themselves as potential undergraduates.

4. Creating the prospective undergraduate learner.
For students to be serious contenders for a university place, they need not only to achieve high grades in their public exams but also to convince the university that they have the capacity to grow intellectually as a result of being given access to a university course. The admission process can be intimidating: students are expected to hold their own views and to be able to express and defend them. This requires intellectual confidence as well as intellectual ability and the school’s G&T programme needs to foster this confidence.

5. Choosing the right course. Students with no family background of university study often make poor choices. They may choose what their parents think they should study, or what someone else has suggested is a ‘good’ course or has good employment potential. A well-chosen course reflects the student’s interests and strengths, in a way that helps to sustain enjoyment and motivation over the three- to four-year course of study. Sadly, advice and guidance in this respect is still inadequate in most schools and colleges. The result is high drop-out rates at university and personal trauma for individuals.

This year, I have been helping the school where I am a governor with its new programme for Years 12 and 13. This school is, according to its recent Ofsted report, a ‘good school with many outstanding features’. It is situated in a socio-economically deprived area of greater Birmingham, where adult qualifications are low and aspirations lower.

Alongside its other G&T-focused work, the school has chosen to create a bespoke programme for Year 12, which aims to help its highest-achieving students to aspire and be equipped to gain places at leading universities. Over the year, each student has been on a personal journey and has given serious thought to the ‘where to after school?’ question. All have worked hard to develop their own views and articulate them (using such vehicles as the Model United Nations General Assembly) and have taken responsibility for mapping out their own plans for Year 13. For them, university is now a truly realistic prospect and I hope that their families will be among those sending their first child to university next year.

Professor Deborah Eyre is VP of the World Council for G&T