Aspirations: moving up

January 21, 2005

A £500 bursary will greet 17-year-old Ahmed Bana if he fulfils his aim of securing a place to study medicine. But the cash will not come from the university or the Government, but from his school, the City Academy in Bristol.

The academy is the result of one of the Government's flagship policies for secondary education - the creation of special schools sponsored by private money as well as grants from the state.

It opened in August 2003 after the closure of a comprehensive school, and it draws its students from the surrounding Lawrence Hill, Easton and Ashley areas of the city, a catchment area of just over 1km square.

As Ray Priest, the head teacher, explains: "St George Community College, our predecessor, had been in challenging circumstances for many years and had been wrestling with attainment, attendance and behaviour, although it was not classed as a failing school.

"I think it was the view that there needed to be a complete overhaul."

The academy was kick-started with £2 million donated by John Laycock of Bristol City Football Club and the University of the West of England.

"St George would have expected single figures to go into higher education each year," Priest says. "This year, we expect 34 to do so. We believe it's to do with the school's aspiration agenda.

"Results post-16 are not good currently, but it will take its time to work through."

Seven students from the academy went to university last year: three to their first- choice institution, one to study English at Cambridge.

Conversations with sixthformers at the academy highlight common themes. Few understand the costs of going to university, but all have grasped its potential worth.

Bana's hope is to "do better" than his mother, who studied nursing in Somalia.

Oliver Kupich, whose older brother is studying biochemistry at Essex University, is thinking of studying pharmacy as a pathway to "getting a good job".

Atefeh Barati and Ahista Remane both hope to study medicine and have been thinking about applying to Exeter, Cardiff and Manchester universities.

Each has a sense of whether their preferred institution has a good reputation but is hard-pressed to rank them according to research ratings, teaching quality or competition for student places.

But most of the sixth-formers seem to have the support of their mothers and fathers.

Priest says: "I think the issue with some of our parents is that there is no tradition of people going into even post-16 education.

"There is a class issue, too - people don't think higher education is something their children are meant to aspire to.

"Increasingly, the Aimhigher programme is engaging parents; telling them it's not about where you live or who you are but your abilities and aspirations."

For Priest, the answer is time and nurturing the aspirations of one generation as a way of improving the chances of the next.

He says: "If we break the mould with 34 students next year, then when they have children, I'm sure they will in turn be supportive. It's a generational issue. There isn't a magic wand.

"But what we are committed to doing at the moment is the hard job of driving up progression."

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