When Helen Hardman and Amy Stewart talk about their kids, they are not discussing their own but the youngsters they work with to make dreams come true.
Both are key members of the University’s Access and Participation team and passionate believers in the transformative power of higher education. By helping pupils from schools with low rates of progression to prepare for university they are transforming the lives of not just individual applicants but all subsequent generations of their families. The work they and their colleagues at universities across the country do is vital if Scottish Government targets to increase the number of pupils from deprived areas going on to higher education are to be met.
Helen is Dundee’s ACES Project Officer, while Amy heads up our Reach initiative. Both projects are funded by the Scottish Funding Council and see them encourage high school pupils to consider highly competitive subjects with additional entry steps, such as art, design and architecture (ACES) and medicine, dentistry and law (Reach).
In practical terms, this sees them at present working with schools that fall below the national average for progression to higher education, currently standing at 38%. This means Reach engages with 17 schools across Tayside, and ACES 29 across Tayside and Fife. Arranging explore days, workshops and taster sessions are just part of what Amy and Helen do. Much of their work is focussed on supporting pupils as they prepare to apply for university through application and personal statement workshops, interview preparation, the UCAT tutoring (Reach) and digital and full portfolio preparation (ACES). As well as providing practical assistance, they have also created a support network for pupils from schools where admission to university – and to study certain subjects in particular – is still all too often seen as an unattainable goal.
Money makes the world go round, as they say, and a time of tight budgets has compounded the difficulties faced by pupils in school, according to Helen. “Budget cuts are a common story we’re hearing from all of our schools. One principal teacher of art and design told me that the budget she had to spend each year amounted to £1 per pupil at her school. That has to cover materials, paper, the cost of sending work away to be assessed, everything.
“There’s a huge amount of printing involved in creative subjects. You need to build a sketchbook so this all adds up.
“Sometimes a pupil might be the only person in their school to sit art and design at advanced higher level, or they might be the only person applying to study that at university. If there is a teacher shortage or there aren’t enough numbers to form a full class what some schools are doing is putting together mixed level classes. In one of my schools one class had pupils studying Nat 1, Nat 4, Nat 5, Higher, one Advanced Higher and portfolio all in one group. This adds challenges for pupils looking to take this subject further.”
Restricted subject choice is also a barrier that Amy has to help pupils navigate through Reach. The University’s City Campus initiative offers pupils a wider range of subjects than might be on offer at their own schools, while they can also travel to other schools in the area for the same purpose. These opportunities do not come without their own challenges, however.
“It’s great that pupils get to do these subjects but it does mean long journeys, maybe a two-hour round trip for an hour-long class in the middle of the school day. It’s an added pressure that those who go to schools with a full range of classes don’t face.
“Medicine and dentistry applicants need to sit the UCAT assessments in addition to their exams and some private schools can offer tutoring for pupils applying for their UCAT in school time. We’ve tried to level the playing field by building up a tutoring programme in the schools we work with. To some extent what we are doing is filling in where schools can’t because understandably they have to make a tight budget work for all pupils.”
Helen acknowledged another difficulty faced by many pupils. “We are putting on lots of events to help them overcome the adversity they face, but we know that they are also more likely to have a part-time job. It all adds up to pressure on their time.”
In addition to the practical challenges faced by some pupils from low progression schools, a number of psychological barriers are placed in their way as well. Both Amy and Helen are clear about the importance of role models in helping pupils understand that university is for ‘people like us’ and in correcting misconceptions they hold about higher education and the professions it feeds. The simple act of inviting pupils on to campus can be equally important to breaking down walls, according to Amy.
“In some schools there have been teachers who’ve said ‘It’s not for you’ while parents might say ‘people like us aren’t doctors’. Sometimes the trick to overcoming preconceptions is to get pupils thinking about the subject in a different way. So we might not even use the word medicine as that can be a huge and scary concept to them. Instead we’ll break it down and say ‘what is it you enjoy about biology?’ or ‘is there something particular you enjoy about science?’ so we can show them they have the attributes and potential to be a doctor.”
“A lot of the time, the pupils we work with will be the first in their family to go to even consider going to university and that brings with it challenges,” she explained. “Just getting them over the threshold of the University so they stop seeing it as this institution that’s maybe not for them is massive. It starts to feel like somewhere they can belong and gives them something to aspire to. At workshops they meet current students who are studying the subject they want to study. Then when they start university they already have a community here and are familiar with the environment and the academics. It all makes for a smoother transition.”
“It’s not in the programme that we should be building communities, but that is exactly what we do and it’s definitely an unwritten bonus for everyone,” added Helen. “Because we run these events all the time, pupils could be coming in two or three times a week at certain times of the year. They get to meet people from other schools interested in the same subject as them. In some schools they might be the only person to apply for that subject and also the first person to apply for that subject in a long time. It can be quite isolating to not have anyone who knows what they are going through.
“The process of getting in to study art and design or medicine or dentistry can be so arduous that it can make all the difference when you connect with peers.
“Getting pupils to explore their options is a major part of what we do because the type of subjects we are working with are very different to kind taught in school. You can’t take a Higher in Architecture or Dentistry and the creative specialisms are so broad that pupils are applying without really knowing what they’re letting themselves in for. Similarly there are pupils who would love these subjects but don’t have the chance to try them out at school and that’s the main aim of our explore days.”
Helen, herself an art graduate, knows first-hand the experience of art and design many pupils have at school can stop them pursuing the subject at university. As such, a large part of her job is showing pupils the freedom they will have to explore their creativity, as well as correcting misconceptions about their post-university prospects.
“Formal art qualifications can be very restrictive,” she said. “They are tricky to teach and when I was at school I nearly didn’t do an art degree because I was so frustrated at the hoops I had to jump through. There was work I had to do that wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was what I had to do to get good grades. I think it can really put you off as a creative person so a big part of ACES is showing pupils that art at university is so much more free and creative than what you might study at school. Pupils who’ve been to our workshops always comment that they wouldn’t be allowed to do it this way at school. It’s something that we need to break down.
“Career prospects for art and design graduates is a big conversation we have to have with pupils or their families because they are often worried about the cost of going to university not being worth it on the other side. But the creative industries are one of the biggest sectors in the UK and is expanding all the time so we need to let people know about the wide range of careers open to them.”
Both Amy and Helen are Dundee graduates and are inspired by their own experiences to make sure as many people as possible can benefit from the opportunities that university provides.
“The confidence I gained from university and my personal growth can’t really be put into words,” said Amy. “University brought out so much in me that I didn’t have before I came here and I want others to have that. I didn’t grow up in adversity but neither of my parents went to university, so it was a new concept to the family when my siblings and I chose this route. In terms of the courses and professions I work with specifically, equality is hugely important. We need an NHS that reflects the people it is treating, and for our legal services to be equally diverse.
“Confidence is a huge thing for the pupils we work with. Some don’t come from backgrounds where they are expected to go to university and it can be difficult for them to believe they belong there. Some of my pupils are quite introverted when they start out, despite doing really well at school. Being able to help people take what is a huge step for them is wonderful for us. In that sense, we’re not just preparing them for courses in terms of theory, but to leave school and have the best life they can.
“That’s why these projects mean so much to us. There are so many pathways available to young people now and giving our pupils the opportunity to explore their options, develop themselves and become who they want to be is a real privilege.”