The dream merchants

November 9, 2006

Giving confidence to the capital's kids leads them to campus, says John Hall

Aimhigher, the national scheme to encourage students from under-represented groups to enter higher education, is a hearts-and-minds initiative. Hearts, because it addresses aspiration, encouraging students to view higher education as a desirable and achievable goal. Minds, because students with potential need to gain a level of attainment that will allow them to benefit.

Since 2003, Aimhigher: Partnerships for Progression has brought together schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions. Their remit has been to help meet the 50 per cent target of 18 to 30-year-olds having some kind of higher education experience by 2010.

London's Aimhigher has focused its resources on areas of low participation -broadly, the inner and outer east on both banks of the Thames. It spans the entire capital via six geographical partnerships and reaches some 350 of London's secondary schools and nearly all further education and sixth-form colleges.

Some 86,000 Aimhigher "interventions" took place across London in the academic year to July 2006. Activities ranged from visits by student ambassadors to Year 11 students taking week-long residential courses in the participating universities and colleges in London.

Schools, further and higher education institutions have formed partnerships to arrange masterclasses, parent events, roadshows, Saturday schools and mentoring, and work with community groups and employers. This year, 600 London students participated in the first Portfolio Advice Day organised by Art Aimhigher London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Improvements have been made in tailoring events to young people's needs, which may focus on the curriculum or personal circumstances such as special learning needs. Most of the activity is for those aged 14-16, but aspiration-building cannot start too early. There is great emphasis on monitoring, evaluating and demonstrating positive impact. Telephone polling showed that Year 11 summer-school participation in 2003 translated into a rise in the number of applications to higher education last autumn.

So where does Aimhigher go next? At the moment that is in the gift of funders. The initiative runs to 2008, but partnerships are already talking of embedding the school-college-university approach. They want to capture London's 2012 "Olympics effect". We can also expect more emphasis on widening participation socially, not just numerically. The Lifelong Learning Networks are also giving impetus to further and higher education collaboration.

Teachers and college lecturers will put more emphasis on child or student-tailored learning. Similarly, Aimhigher will be challenged to customise its interventions more to individual needs than easier-to-organise groups. In running Aimhigher programmes, London faces added complexity through its population dynamics and cultural and ethnic diversity. But it also has more capacity than anywhere in the country to showcase its "world-class but near to you" opportunities for higher education.

John Hall is the director of Aimhigher for the London region.

john.hall@ioe.ac.uk ; www.londonaimhigher.ac.uk
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