Krisha Bainham, Head of Widening Access, University of Derby
Katherine Baysan, Outreach and Admissions Officer, Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Luke Gordon-Calvert, Widening Access Senior Officer, University of Derby
The city of Derby is an area categorised by entrenched social immobility, with GCSE attainment well below the national average and low higher education (HE) progression (Social Mobility Commission, 2017).
Progression to Oxbridge is acutely poor and we know, both from application data and anecdotally from teachers, that there are very able pupils in the city who either make unsuccessful applications to Oxbridge, chose not to take up offers, or who should be considering Oxbridge but do not. Feedback from teachers identified that knowledge of Oxbridge is low, even amongst teachers themselves, and that pupils hold stereotypical views that Oxbridge ‘isn’t for the likes of them’.
It is in response to this that a pivotal meeting was held in February 2018 between the University of Derby; Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and Derby city representatives including teachers and employer representatives. The outcome was an agreement to work collaboratively to address this disparity.
Seed funding was secured for the pilot Derby Scholars programme from the Derby Opportunity Area, which has been further supplemented through the local Uniconnect partnership.
The programme focuses on two key year groups: Year 12, to have immediate impact; and Year 9 to develop and increase understanding more gradually. There are three main aims:
- knowledge building regarding Oxbridge and the Oxbridge application process
- building independent learning skills
- creating a community of high achieving scholars across the city.
In the pilot year (2019/20) there were 28 Year 12 participants drawn from four post-16 providers and 75 Year 9 participants drawn from 10 schools. 89% of participants met at least one widening participation criteria.
Buy-in from a range of stakeholders has been vital to the programme’s success – from the schools: to support the activities which took place in the school day and to provide participant data; from parents/carers: to support their child’s engagement in the programme; and most importantly from the Scholars themselves, particularly the Year 12 group who would be engaging in sessions outside of school hours.
The Year 12 programme is designed around regular homework clubs, supported by undergraduate students, and included access to the University of Derby’s central library. These sessions are further underpinned with activities such as masterclasses led by PhD students, visits to Oxford and academic skills sessions.
The Year 9 programme is designed to be less intensive with several activities throughout Year 9 and 10, including academic skills and experience days at the University of Derby, a visit to Oxford and opportunities to work collaboratively with the Year 12 group.
Impact of lockdown
The programme began well, with good attendance at early homework club and experience day sessions. Unfortunately, most planned activity was significantly impacted by lockdown. Subsequently, we have worked to replace scheduled in-person events with online sessions, virtual visits led by student ambassadors, and newly created digital content.
Unsurprisingly, this presented several challenges, primarily that of digital poverty. Sessions were scheduled after-school to try and alleviate conflicting technology demands, and Scholars unable to access technology were invited to contact us to arrange other ways of engaging (none did).
New safeguarding procedures for all online outreach events have been promptly introduced, including DBS-checked hosts, online risk assessments, and a ‘code of conduct’ which all the participating Scholars agreed to.
Significant drawbacks have been the Scholars not being able to meet in person and not having remote access to the University of Derby resources and facilities, which was considered a major initial draw.
However, lockdown has brought some benefits:
- For some of the Scholars online delivery is their preferred mode of learning.
- Scholars have been able to join academic skills sessions aimed at undergraduates – further supporting both their studies and sense of independence.
- There has been an increase in online interactions with student ambassadors and academics, which would have been difficult in person due to time and budget constraints.
- The Scholars became familiar with the technology, particularly Microsoft Teams, which is used for Oxford interviews.
- Reduced costs due to online delivery has meant that we have been able to create a more cost-effective blended programme, negating the need for external funding and securing it for future years.
Impact and success are being measured by applying a theory of change methodology which has supported the development of a robust mixed methods evaluation plan which included:
- The collection of baseline data regarding applications, offers and enrolments to Oxbridge from Derby city students.
- Baseline and end of programme surveys to measure ‘distance travelled’.
- Event evaluations.
- Reflective journals for the Year 12 participants.
- A survey of the online programme has been completed by those who participated.
There have been some interesting early findings:
- From the baseline survey:
- 90% of the Year 12 Scholars are thinking about applying to university, 58% of those to Oxbridge.
- 81% of the Year 9 Scholars are thinking about applying to university, 35% of those to Oxbridge.
- The Scholars rated their level of competency in a range of academic skills. Interestingly, the Year 9 cohort rated their competencies higher than the Year 12s e.g.
- 76% of Y9s felt their researching skills using the internet were proficient or excellent, compared to only 42.1% of the Y12s.
- 55% of Y9s felt their referencing skills were proficient or excellent, compared to only 26.3% of the Y12s.
- Only in independent learning did the Y12s outscore the Y9s in feeling proficient or excellent, 73.7% to 70.7%.
One conclusion might be that the Year 9 group have an inflated confidence regarding these skills, or perhaps more likely, they did not comprehend those skills in the same way post-16 students do. This will be an interesting watchpoint in the progression of the Year 9 cohort into post-16.
The Year 12 end of programme survey has shown us:
- a 59-percentage point increase in those who reported they knew enough about Oxbridge to make a decision about applying. (Figure 1)
- a 63-percentage point increase in those who reported they understood how to make a good application to Oxbridge. (Figure 2)
We are also tracking the number of applications and offers to Oxford from Derby city, and, although the numbers are small, there has been a notable increase between the 2018/19 and 2020/21 application cycles:
|2018/19 app cycle
|2020/21 app cycle
|2020/21 app cycle (Derby Scholars only)
A third of all offers to Oxford for Derby City applicants in 2020/21, went to Derby Scholars, who comprise the most disadvantaged students in the Oxford applicant pool. In addition, the application to offer rate for Derby Scholars applying to Oxford is 43%, compared to 20% for UK applicants.
These are promising results, which we hope will further increase as we continue the programme.
The future of the programme
As previously referenced, from 2021/22 the programme will be funded from each universities’ own outreach budget.
Discussions are also in progress with Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, regarding their participation in the programme.
Positive learning from pandemic delivery will be taken forward to further enhance the programme, such as the blended approach, giving more opportunity for participants to meet and get to know Oxbridge colleagues and students.
However, we also recognise the importance of in-person activities. A focus will be the development of the community of scholars, a key element of the programme which wasn’t fully realised due to lockdown; and the campus visits, particularly to Oxford, somewhere where few, if any, of the Scholars have visited before.
Finally, it is a programme aim that former programme participants who progress to Oxbridge will retain their links with the project, acting as inspirational role models for future Scholars.
Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain, London: APS Group.