How can teachers raise aspirations for students who have untapped potential? Martin Ransley follows the lives of a group of Year 9 students.

Each year I prepare an ‘options’ module for Year 9 that is delivered during the spring term by their respective form tutors. A higher education element is delivered in the final week and student ambassadors from London universities come into classes and work with students on aspects of university life.

The first year it proved very popular with our students and debunked a few myths concerning university while smashing some prejudices; so much so, that I decided to involve parents whom I then invited to attend an evening devoted to HE. The evening went well and the next step was to get students to have a real taste of university life. The head mentioned HiPACT, an educational charity that runs residential weeks at different universities around the country during the summer term. But how should I select these Year 9 students?

Selection process

Yes, I could have selected students based on the data. However, at a year team meeting, I asked form tutors to list students who, if they attended every day, and completed all the work required of them, had the potential to go to university. As a result, 20 students were selected to go.

There were other social criteria used apart from qualitative judgement of their form tutors: were they eligible for free school meals and had their parents attended the HE evening? After I received this information, I checked their test scores and other data we had on them. A few had high CATs scores; more had not, or were borderline.

University life

Nottingham University was one that I knew and liked. We were to stay a week. The students were very excited, the weather was fine and warm and no one was ill on the coach journey.

As we disembarked, the students noticed students from other schools arriving: from other parts of the country, small towns, large cities, even some from Cornwall and Newcastle. They were from different year groups too: Years 9 to 12. On entering the refectory one of the students exclaimed, ‘It’s just like Harry Potter!’ And indeed it was for her. Only in her imagination had she experienced anything like this before because we have nothing like it at our school and no one in her family had ever been to university. She would be the first.

Literature and what we teach the children opens up a whole world for their imaginations. I had been struggling to teach Pride and Prejudice to some of this same group of students. Their English teacher had left the previous term and I foolishly volunteered to teach them up to their SATs. But that first night at Nottingham, it paid off. We went on a night walk organised by the undergraduates. As we emerged from a hedged path one of the girls spotted what looked like a large cream-coloured house. She asked if Darcy and Bingley would live in a house like that. There was a note of awe and amazement in her question. It is incredibly valuable to get students away from their everyday environment in order that their brains can have time to make the connections between what they learn and the real world. More so if their backgrounds are narrow in terms of experience.

Students also attended workshops led by undergraduates with topics such as the pressures from family and peers not to go (especially if no one else in the family has been), and the various routes to university. Our students liked the undergraduates leading the workshops and realised that, apart from the obvious age difference, that they were very much like them. The evenings were filled with quizzes, talent shows and a disco.

Looking back

The students had many worthwhile experiences that week, so much so that when they were reminiscing a few years later in my office and I asked what was the best thing they had done while at school, without hesitation they said ‘Nottingham!’ While I should have been pleased with this I also knew they had been on an archaeological trip to Pompeii later that year and was curious as to why the university experience had come out on top. In truth they couldn’t give a concrete answer and I had to just settle for ‘It was better’. It was a qualitative judgement.

Did any of them go to university? Yes, 14 of the 20 went; 10 were the first ones in their families to do so. Some years later, two are on management training schemes in the City, another is working as a nursery nurse, while two are still in education and training. The other I have been unable to trace.

None of these students were known for their academic achievements. It is not easy to spot ‘potential’ from test results. Peter Nicol, the Commonwealth squash gold medallist, tells a story of how he got to know the human being behind an old adversary. An opponent he had met repeatedly suddenly stopped playing during a game. His fingers were rigid with cramp. Peter, realising his plight, helped him peel them off the racket. From that moment Nicol saw the human behind the squash player as we must see the human behind the test results.

Martin Ransley is a careers, Aim Higher and WRL coordinator (AST). He has taught for 25 years.