REACH: equipping students to achieve their highest aspirations

REACH: equipping students to achieve their highest aspirations
Date10th Oct 2022AuthorVicky OrsmondCategoriesStudent Life

Hereford Sixth Form College’s Senior Progression Lead Vicky Orsmond developed the Reach programme, which is aimed at raising aspirations both for students with high prior attainment, but also for students from disadvantaged backgrounds or from lower socio-economic groups. The College has recently won the School of the Year award at the Aspire UpReach Social Mobility Awards 2022.   

Having taken on the role of Oxbridge Co-Ordinator in 2018, I realised that although we had huge success at getting students into Oxbridge, almost all of those who applied would probably have progressed onto highly competitive universities regardless of what the college could offer. We had, of course, supported them through the process, but we didn’t actively seek out students who might not consider highly competitive universities unless they had the confidence to put themselves forward for support.   

Psychology of ‘Possible Selves’  

Having read research about ‘Possible Selves’, which was theorised by psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius in 1986i, I realised that we could work to help students see their future ‘possible self’ and thereby broaden their outlook for the future. The theory is that, in order to navigate complex periods of life, it is necessary to have a future ‘possible self’ on which to fix our eye. This is seen in infancy and the teenage years, but also in difficult periods throughout a person’s life, such as divorce. These imagined future versions of oneself, even if they are not positive, are still helpful, as they show us real failures or challenges to overcome.  Markus and Nurius suggested that we can for example contemplate: ‘I am now a student, but I could imagine becoming a restaurant owner,’ if we have had contact with someone in that position or sphere and know roughly what it would be like. Without this possible future version of oneself with which to engage, it is much harder to navigate through complex periods of life.   

Because of this research, I realised that in my college we had many students who did not have a huge range of possible selves on which to focus.    

Background of Hereford Sixth Form College  

The college caters for around 2,200 students and has a huge intake from across a wide geographical area. Herefordshire has very low levels of unemployment, but one of the lowest median incomes in the country, and a significant part of the city of Hereford itself is in the bottom 10% of income nationally. Around 30% of our intake is from Wales. Many students come from rural areas, with poor travel links, historically low rates of entry into HE, and access to broadband only for the past seven years.  The area has relatively few businesses who work nationally or globally, so many of our students have never been further afield than their local county town or seen such businesses in action. A report by Rural England, Rural Vulnerability and Disadvantage Statement 2020, stated that “only 51% of rural students have access to a Further Education site within 30 minutes’ travel time using public transport/walking compared to 93.6% in urban areas”ii . Indeed, nearly half of our students commute for more than an hour per day to access the outstanding education we provide, but they inevitably have less time available for independent study at home.  

Therefore, we had a large number of students who might have the potential to aim for competitive universities but who were not applying because of a lack of knowledge and confidence. In his 2022 Six Dimensions report, ‘The Unexamined Life’, Nick Allen looked at the distance travelled to university by sixth form students across the country. On every measure, students in the lowest income brackets and those on free meals do not travel large distances to go to university, something our internal research has also shown at Hereford. Students did not know how to choose places of higher education that would give them opportunities for the future. Nick writes that “Sociologists talk of ‘privileged skilled choosers’ when considering how middle-class families use their educational, cultural and social capital to navigate choice-based education systems. Perhaps we need to do a bit of upskilling of our students’ ability to choose”. This is exactly what we decided to do with the Reach programme for social mobility.    

Difficulties with current Widening Participation Initiatives  

We have consistently found that data for widening participation used by the Office for Students and universities is flawed for our students. In the sparsely populated rural area beyond Hereford city, the rates of progression are inaccurate because of low numbers, and although rates of unemployment are low, wages are also low. I did some research using DEFRA’s rural poverty statistics and other evidence gathered by governmentiii  and was struck by the fact that relative child poverty was not vastly different between the most challenging cities and rural towns of the type that many of our students live in. For example, in the data below, many of our students fall into the category of ‘fringe in a sparse setting’. They have none of the advantages of cities with good transport links, multiculturalism, and focused funding, even though statistically our poverty rate is not very different to that in urban areas.  

There are, to date, no DfE-funded programmes that focus specifically upon tackling rural disadvantage for 16-18s. 

Reach Programme  

My belief was that if we brought together students who were already highly able with students who had the potential to be highly able but had a wide range of disadvantages, we would see an improvement in student outcomes and an increase in high grades. Students would also go to universities or courses which would offer them more scope for the future. I decided that we should let our new Year 12 students settle in for a term, and then from January they would have one hour’s Reach lesson a week. This would introduce them to alumni students from a wide range of backgrounds, all doing different subjects in university, or in the world of work. I began a YouTube channel so parents could also access the information, and started the programme in 2018.   

Reach lessons follow a relatively set format. Students watch a 10-20 minute film from an alum student or professional. For example, I interviewed a student who did a humanities degree, a Law conversion course, and then worked as an advocate in care proceedings. Another was the managing director of a mining company, specialising in renewable energy minerals. The rest of the lesson is either critical thinking preparation (learning about the structure of arguments, counter-arguments, assumptions or logical fallacies) or time talking about super-curricular reading or research. The lessons also teach students the practical skills to read, research and reference, and help them navigate information from blogs or documentaries in preparation for undergraduate level texts or works.  

How do we select students? 

Using an average GCSE score, all the students who come to us with high grades are included in the Reach programme. We also include students who are Looked After or have been Looked After, and those from feeder schools in Special Measures, or who have accessed free school meals. Prior data is not our only measure.  After our first assessment series in late September, grades are scrutinised across the whole cohort, and any students who after that initial assessment have already outperformed their expected grades are approached and asked if they want to join the Reach programme.

We have a big launch event each year for parents, carers and students to introduce the programme, and additional events are held for parents throughout the year. In these we explain what universities and apprenticeships are available, and we ‘myth bust’ about higher education, to overcome what might be longstanding family fears about education after sixth form. This means that students who have no prior understanding of higher education choices are given equal opportunities to make informed decisions.   

What have been the outcomes?  

From the first cohort of Reach, we had 33 offers to Oxbridge. This was remarkable in that it represented 42% of those who applied. Even more pleasing, however, is that the impact of Reach has increased over the years. Around 400 students do Reach, and then decide if they would want an apprenticeship, a degree, or to go through early application. More than four fifths of those who do follow the programme choose not to go to Oxbridge, as they have found courses elsewhere that suit them better. This is exactly what I hoped for, and means that the College continues to have 30% or more of Oxbridge applicants offered places, which they then take up - one of the highest applications to offers ratios in the countryiv. What is also pleasing is that our high grades have improved, as the cohort is encouraged to be more ambitious. Many of these Reach students are in mixed ability classes and must consider themselves as competing with others across the country, not merely in their class.   

However, the best thing is that students make an informed choice. After the 14 weeks of Reach, they regularly and confidently announce that they have found the right course or education provider for them. They know they are world-class; they know they have choices, and they have the confidence to pursue them. Reach is absolutely not about Oxbridge; it is about social mobility. These exciting two years at college are arguably the last two years when we can make such opportunities truly available, and Reach allows us to do that with great success.

Vicky is Senior Progression Lead at Hereford Sixth Form College.

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