Fellow warriors on very different battlefields 1

November 19, 2004

'Getting these students through the door is only the start'

It turns out to be an enlightening experience when widening participation officers Patrick Johnson and Joe Baden swap jobs in the first of a new series.

I'm togged up for a Russell, nice whistle, dickie and peckham, pucka daisies, even me norths and almonds are Armani, when I get real grief from one of me hampsteads. My life, it feels like I've been lumped on the gunga. So I jump on the dog, order a sherbet to get it sorted. Halfway down the frog, me west hams start playing up, hatties in me brightons an' everything. I can't work out if it's because it's taters or me deaf ands going."

You could be forgiven for thinking this is from an episode of EastEnders . It is in fact an extract from a Cockney rhyming slang story that Joe Baden has given to a new group of participants on the Open Book project. Joe reads out the story to the group and, although I can't understand most of what he reads, the rest of the group can follow the story. The message: academic writing and speaking can sound like another language but after a time, like the Cockney rhyming slang, you can learn to decipher it. This makes sense to the group, who feel that bit more comfortable and confident about the idea of academia.

Anyone who talks to Joe soon realises that he is totally committed to the work he does, and this is the thing that strikes you about all the people who are involved in the Open Book project. Joe is the only member of staff employed by Goldsmiths College, London, but there are many volunteers supporting people on the project, and all the workers come from similar backgrounds and experiences to those on the programme; most have been through Open Book themselves.

Open Book aims to break down the barriers that discourage people from entering higher education. The team works closely with a network of agencies to support the participants, who have a history of alcoholism, drug addiction, mental health problems and/or are ex-offenders. They encourage potential students to consider further or higher education through a range of activities, including university visits, attendance at lectures, seminars and workshops, meetings with students from similar backgrounds and one-to-one sessions with experienced staff. They are linked to their local further education college (Lewisham) and offer a pre-access course.

Speaking to a number of students on the Open Book project, I find that they gain much more than can be measured in academic terms and that, without the scheme, they would not have considered higher education.

"The project has been invaluable. There are people I can relate to who come from a similar background and that really gave me the confidence to continue. I don't feel isolated and lonely," one says.

"I need something to occupy my mind and to get away from the monotony of my life. I really need structure and a reason to get out of bed every morning," another comments.

The secret to Open Book's success is a strong partnership with the student union. The union offers a welcoming, informal environment for drop-in sessions and provides student volunteers and mentors for the project. Joe believes the project would not exist without the support of the union, and its commitment is evident when I speak to the general manager.

Making the decision to join the Open Book project is a big step for the students, and getting into higher education is another hurdle, but ensuring they stay on their courses is equally important. The project offers continual support to these students, and Joe is on call 24 hours a day.

Joe comments: "You could not be involved in a project like this unless you are 100 per cent committed and believe in what you do."

My work at Manchester University focuses on a project called University Options. It aims to help prospective students make informed choices about higher education, particularly with regard to careers. The initiative includes a website, www.universityoptions.co.uk, which has a wealth of information for prospective students, parents and teachers or advisers. We also offer training to careers advice staff on the graduate labour market so that they are able to give their clients up-to-date and accurate advice.

Unlike Open Book, which is separate from other widening participation activities at Goldsmiths - Joe calls the project the provisional wing of widening participation - University Options is firmly embedded within the university's widening participation strategy, which includes the university's Art Gallery, Museum and Targeted Access Scheme.

Our university is situated within communities that have progression into highereducation rates as low as 0.01 per cent, and it has made widening participation one of its key goals. For example, it recently donated Pounds 100,000 worth of digital cameras and equipment to support learning and raise aspirations at 180 primary schools in deprived wards.

Joe's target group is very different from ours. When he goes out to recruit, he visits drug and alcohol addiction groups and probation services - he says that "what people call the 'hard-to-reach group' is the biggest misnomer going".

The students University Options works with are accessible in the main through schools and colleges. They have the ability to enter higher education but for whatever reason - for example, they may be the first in their family to enter higher education - they don't consider it. Both groups are important to attract, but you need different methods to engage them.

One thing that really strikes me about the people on the Open Book project is that they are interested in education not as a means to an end (that is to say, leading to a job/career, financial rewards) but they have a strong interest in their own personal development, and this brings a great sense of achievement. I think this may have something to do with the age of the group - most are mature students - but it may also be related to how higher education is sold to them.

Through University Options we are increasingly asked by schools and colleges to deliver sessions to students on employability and to talk about the benefits of higher education. The financial benefits of higher education are important to many given concerns about growing student debt.

However, we believe it is important that students do not concentrate solely on the end result but that they enter higher education to study a subject they are interested in and will enjoy.

The main things I have learnt from the shadowing exercise is the importance of positive role models and the need to identify and tap into the motivations of a target group. Role models who have an understanding of someone's background can be incredibly motivational and should not be underestimated. This is something I have witnessed first-hand and, without Joe, I think Open Book would either not exist or not be as successful as it is.

Another thing that was driven home is the need for continuous support. It is one thing to encourage non-traditional groups to enter higher education, but getting them through the door is only the start. They need to have support systems in place that they can access whenever they need them. They need to feel that someone is there for them. This support needs to happen not only pastorally but through their academic studies, and support and preparation with the transition into the world of work. This has clear links with the retention of these students. It's not just about bums on seats.

Joe's philosophy is that they are not trying to change people but to help them to realise what they could have become in the first place.

Patrick Johnson is head of pre-entry and diversity - the Business, Careers and Community Division of Manchester University.

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