• Abbie Tibbott

The Importance of Widening Participation Projects in Education

While not being strictly about study, widening participation is now intrinsically fed through mainstream education, and continues on at university. The act of recognising the inequalities in children's’ education can go a long way in deciding the direction of their futures. As someone who has been impacted by these programmes, I wanted to talk about my experience, as well as how I would like to give back to current students in mandatory education.

Firstly, some background. When I was in secondary education, the majority of the schools in my local area were rated poorly by OFSTED, and had fewer students achieving A*-C grades than the national average. The Isle of Wight is a community that is (obviously) geographically isolated from bigger towns and cities, lacking the infrastructure to provide a university, although there is a higher education college that offers some courses which can be ‘topped up’ by partner universities on the mainland. Due to this structure, attracting the teachers necessary has proved to be a challenge, so schools are often understaffed with big class sizes. I’d say that I rarely remember being in a class of less than 25, even in my selected GCSE subjects. I don’t remember this particularly affecting my ability to learn, as it was more the behavioural issues of other students, a lack of resources (textbooks, dissection opportunities, even computers) and time spent one-on-one with teachers that was the most detrimental.

Even though my school was one of the smallest secondary colleges, I often felt just like a number, except from in the music department as I played a few instruments and sang in the choir. I was part of the music gifted-and-talented scheme, which aimed to provide students with more opportunities in the subject. I went to the Isle of Wight festival and took part in a few creative workshops, starting my progress in a widening participation scheme way back then, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. Gifted-and-talented has now been renamed, but those programmes remain active, aiming to encourage children who have an ability in a certain discipline to explore their talents in preparation for the future. I didn’t do music at university, but it was nice to be recognised as well as supported outside of the classroom.

In year 11 I visited the University of Chichester along with a group of other students, who I now realise were those my school most expected to carry on with A Levels. We met university students, took a tour of the campus and had a few workshops on what we wanted to do in the future. As my first experience with a university, it was an interesting look at how it all worked, even if it was quite simplistic. Island schools lack a lot of funding, so now I appreciate my school offering a few of us the chance to experience what university was like at that age, and I wish I’d been able to see more of that.

In sixth form, there weren’t any widening participation opportunities for me, as my predicted grades didn’t place me at the top of the year group, so I was essentially removed from the trips to visit more universities and speak to current students, as this was reserved for ‘Oxbridge’ standard candidates. Spoiler alert, no one from my year did medicine or went to Oxbridge (they either didn’t get accepted or missed their predicted grades), so I wonder what the point of excluding students like me was. Maybe it was funding, but I always felt like my school wasn’t particularly invested in students like me, who were still capable of going to a good university. As in all cases, there were a few teachers who were instrumental in helping me decide where to visit when applying to UCAS, and I hope everyone’s educational experience can be made a little better by teachers like that.

My parents paid for and accompanied me to the universities I wanted to visit. I wasn’t aware of any funding made available to help students visit institutions that they were interested in, and I know of people who were only able to look at the closest universities, simply down to travel costs. I’m lucky that my parents took an interest in finding me a place that I liked, but sixth form was never involved in the process. Of course, I did have a disastrous meeting with a careers advisor, who basically insulted my ambitions and doubted my ability to get into a good university, but I don’t count that as much of a helpful intervention if I’m honest.

Moving forwards, I was offered a place at the University of Reading through their Academic Excellence Scheme, which offered places to students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds with promising GCSE grades. I accepted, partly because I was worried about my performance in exams, but mostly because I really liked Reading, and had had such a great experience on the open day I attended. This programme has now been replaced by contextual offers, which take into account the personal situations of students from non-traditional university backgrounds, and presents them with an offer that differs from the standard one you’d find in a prospectus. I think this system is so incredibly valuable for admitting students to university, and it’s something I hope continues to evolve and become even more specialised in the future.

I simply wouldn’t have had the journey I’ve had without a contextual offer, and without widening participation initiatives at universities. Some would say that it’s all a numbers game, that universities simply have quotas to fill of students from different backgrounds. Whilst that has some truth in it, that doesn’t take away the positive impact these schemes have on prospective students when done properly and sensitively.

As a university student, I’ve had lots of employment focused around widening participation, and have given more campus tours and workshops than I can count. Students travel to the university to learn a little bit about a particular subject, or simply to demystify what university is. Some of these children will have never visited a university campus before, or know really what happens during a degree. These visits can start as early as age eleven, and children get a lot out of the opportunity. As a PhD student, I’m excited to begin delivering some of these sessions specifically focused around my research, so it’s a full circle moment for me.

Finally, if you’re ever offered any of these opportunities, don’t let stigma prevent you from accessing them. At the end of the day, it’s you education, so make the most of what is offered to you, even if it takes a while to find something you’re really interested in. I’m happy to be giving back, and I hope to see you all around campus soon!

Happy studying!