Reach for the stars
King’s College London is making it a top priority to ensure that disadvantaged but talented young people don’t miss out on a place at university, writes
Sitting in an office high above the River Thames, in the administrative building known fondly as the Kremlin of King’s College London, there is one thing that Anne-Marie Canning, director of widening participation for the university, wants to make crystal clear: “There is no aspiration gap.”
She explains:“For years, the received wisdom was that disadvantaged young people were lacking aspiration, but everything we do here is research based, and what we’ve learned is that most people want to go to university. The reality is, it’s rare that you meet a child who doesn’t want to do something absolutely phenomenal – what they don’t have is the road map and support network to get there.”
That is why King’s, aware of its
“It’s rare to meet a child who doesn’t want to do something phenomenal – what they don’t have is the road map and support network to get there”
prestigious position in the Russell Group but also its physical position in the heart of the capital, is determined to provide more than a broadened admissions policy. Instead, its widening participation department supports a range of children from primary school right through higher education and on to the labour market. It requires a diverse team building solid relationships in every community
“It is not enough to get more underrepresented kids through the door. You have to support them through the entire education journey”
in London, and a real commitment to pre- and post-16 outreach.
Canning says it is not enough to get more under-represented kids through the door: you have to support them the entire way through the education journey, which the university does via its K+ scheme.“It’s all about who you recruit to work on the issue,” she says. The best recruiters, she believes, are people from the same background as those you want to engage.“So, for black and minority ethnic children, we’ve done quite a job of bringing people through third-sector organisations.
“If, say, I needed more Latin American kids, I would go to London Citizens (an alliance of 200 schools, universities, faith and community groups), who worked on the London Living Wage campaign: they know those communities,” she explains.
“The problem is getting universities to move outside their comfort zones, and for many of them, working with these charities is a no-no.”
The team at King’s has also worked extensively with refugee and asylum-seeking students, “particularly forced migrants, a forgotten group who just have the wrong paperwork and can’t access the loan system”, says Canning.
“We are building a culture of trust so we can talk to them and first ask,‘OK, what is your residency ?’” There are various schemes on the go: summer schools, family days, the King’s Scholars school outreach scheme, Sanctuary Scholarships for refugees or forced migrants, as well as K+, which is soon to enter its seventh year.“We also just think creatively,” says Canning.
If there is no relevant research, the team commissions academics at King’s to provide some – for example, on white working-class boys.“Theresa May is absolutely correct in that assertion – they really are the group least likely to go to university,” says Canning.
“So the government is on the money with setting that as a priority, but it is not so good at understanding how you make progress with them. Last year, we published a report with recommendations on how we would start to interact with that group. And this year, we’re doing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students.”
One white boy recruited via the widening participation scheme, from the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, is now a student on the medical degree programme.“I’m so proud when I think about him because, by all the data, he shouldn’t be at university but he’s on a six-year programme and he’s the highest-performing kid in the entire medical school.
“It’s so amazing for our institution that the most talented doctor is from Barking and Dagenham. And I’ve got to praise his mum – she’s not been to university herself and she wanted to support him but she didn’t know how, so our job was to help her.”
Canning says the best bit is that this student isn’t a one-off.“We’ve already got 12 more boys like him in Year 12 now,” she adds, beaming. “We want King’s to be the top Russell Group university for social mobility.”
So, how did she get into this work? “I was a widening participation kid myself,” she says. She grew
up in Doncaster with a labourer father and disabled mother, attending a comprehensive that was in special measures, where practically nobody went to university.
A teacher encouraged her to apply to a Sutton Trust summer school at the University of Oxford. “I’d like to say I had a wonderful happy time that encouraged me to apply to Russell Group universities,” she says. “But it was one of the most distressing experiences of my life. I could sense I was bottom of the pile.
“Other kids would say‘ We’ve all worked equally hard for our A grades! Whoever gets in, it’s fine!’ And I’d think, ‘You’ve got a laptop and I’m self-teaching two A levels, my friend!’ But it made me realise what I was up against. So I did English at York, which was a really magical place, but I still got called a chav in my first week. I knew I had to change things for other students like me.”
Considering the options King’s College London offers support and guidance to sixth-formers wondering if university is for them
Reaching out white working-class boys are among the groups least likely to go on to higher education.
Young minds summer schools offer a taste of university life
Aiming higher pupils from ethnic minorities are encouraged to apply