'One of the kids might find a cure for cancer'

April 26, 2002

University should be an option for everyone, writes Harriet Swain

The challenge: take a dozen ten and 11-year-olds from one of the most disadvantaged schools in Hull - some with special needs and literacy problems - and persuade them to think of applying to university by teaching them a smattering of Japanese, a scene from Macbeth and a little 17th-century English history along the way. Oh yes, and do it all in under two hours.

John Knowles, widening participation coordinator at the University of Lincoln, is about to attempt this feat. His reasons? "The thrust behind everything we do with schools is raising ambition and expectation," he says. "If we work with a school where a child gets better than expected GCSEs then we have succeeded; if some of these children go to any university, we have succeeded; if they come to us, it is a bonus.

"The whole issue of widening participation is not about recruitment. It is about persuading kids who have no family experience of higher education, no cultural experience of higher education in their neighbourhood, that there is this place called university that is open to them."

As part of this campaign, he dresses carefully "to look as if I haven't" and plans a session that will allow him to identify and use each child's skills as effectively as possible, without being intimidating. "It's like a two-hour stand-up routine," he says.

Today's routine, for children from St George's Primary School, Hull, starts with a tour of the university, in which he points out lecture theatres, libraries, academics' offices and, most exciting of all, the student accommodation blocks.

The children, who had no idea that students lived at the university, were particularly impressed by the news that they hung plastic bags of milk cartons out of the window to keep them cool.

After the tour, they troop into a seminar room and settle down, with only a bit of fidgeting, for their own seminar, complete with overhead projections. They get a definition of a "grown-up" university - "a place that people choose to go to", "a very big place", "a place where people find things out" - and an idea of what is good about it - "you choose to study something you are interested in", "you meet lots of people with similar interests to yours". They hear a bit about the University of Hull and, just as the fidgeting is starting to increase, they are told to get to their feet and learn to count to ten in Japanese.

The process involves learning a story, with actions, and by the end of it not only can they count from "itchy knee" to "dew" but they have learned all about how to learn.

This comes in handy for the next part of the session, about King James I. He turns out to be pretty "cool" since not only was he linked with the University of Edinburgh and the Union Jack but he wrote books about witchcraft. And, of course, he was targeted by Guy Fawkes, who went to school in York, and who was eventually hanged, drawn and quartered for attempting the Gunpowder Plot (much gruesome detail of the mechanics of hanging, drawing and quartering).

What does everyone know about witches? "They wear black", "they're ugly", "they've got spots". In 1605, Knowles explains, they were also "the scariest thing alive" - think Jaws , think Darth Vader - and the subject of witch-hunts. His explanation of these - "pretend she's just got off with your boyfriend. I'll give you five guineas if you tell me if she is a witch" - soon has the children eagerly shopping their mates.

To help them realise just how scary witches were, the children have to act out the witches scene from Macbeth in teams, after just a few minutes preparation. The results are impressive, with both the most difficult and the quietest children managing to memorise their words and put in convincingly frightening performances.

They know they have done well. As Knowles quickly summarises everything they have achieved, he stresses how close it is to the kind of thing "proper students do".

Natalie Jenner, aged ten, never thought she would go to university - she cannot think of anyone she knows who has been - but she has changed her mind now. She likes drawing and writing and reading stories. Maybe she could do some of that. "It looks more fun than school," she says.

Danial Seheley, aged 11, is also beginning to think university could be good. "It's better than being cooped up at home," he says.

Jack Travis, aged 11, says: "It would be good living here because you get to meet more people and you get to learn about more things that you can do in life."

But Knowles still has reservations about widening participation. He feels unable to assure them that they will get good jobs once they graduate - the evidence is that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds still earn less than their more advantaged counterparts. And he recounts the story of one parent who, though proud that her daughter was the first in the family to enter higher education, was shocked that she was also the first to get into debt.

Yet he remains convinced that universities should be trying to engage these children as soon as possible. "As the kids get off the bus, what always goes through my mind is that one of these kids might find a cure for cancer," he says, "and if we don't get them now, they might become a bricklayer or a hairdresser."

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