Celebrating success and tackling challenges in Widening Participation

Celebrating success and tackling challenges in Widening Participation

Looking back

In early March the widening participation team was in the midst of a busy period, welcoming groups of young people to the university on a weekly basis.

Our brand new Insight Explore cohort had just attended their first event and our teams were busy preparing for exciting events over the Easter period, including our first residential of the year: The Target Oxbridge Easter Residential. The programme was ready and filled with inspiring speakers, our excellent student ambassadors had been recruited, we had arranged a joint formal dinner with the African-Caribbean Society and everyone was looking forward to welcoming 80 bright prospective black students to stay at King’s College for a few days.

For a while, we held out hope that lockdown restrictions would lift and our usual events in Cambridge could continue; we know how valuable it is for students to be able to visit the university, meet people like them and visualise themselves in what could otherwise be very intimidating surroundings! Sadly, we had to take the decision in late February to cancel as it became clear that the risks of running a residential were too high. On a day where we were supposed to be welcoming 60 students from across The Network for East Anglian Collaborative Outreach (NEACO), we were instead sent home taking our office equipment with us and facing an uncertain future.

Celebrating success

Unable to welcome students to in-person events, we found ways to move most of our planned summer activity online. Target Oxbridge participants have enjoyed a series of online webinars featuring students, alumni and admissions staff. We arranged online tutoring for our Insight+ participants and, in July, they started an online mentoring programme connecting prospective students with current students at different universities.

The Sutton Trust Summer Schools (and Experience Cambridge) took place on the newly developed Sutton Trust Online platform and we worked with our academic colleagues to deliver a virtual offering with online academic teaching.

Insight Explore students worked together online on group projects, with the support of student ambassadors over the summer and we have been running a series of online live events since the start of this academic year. During the first lockdown we offered support to the parents and carers of our youngest cohorts on Insight Discover and have been working closely with schools over this academic year to run activities without placing any unnecessary pressure on schools and students navigating a difficult school year.

Finally, We have redesigned our HE+ website where students can enjoy a range of supercurricular resources created by the academic community at Cambridge. Over 4,000 students on the HE+ programme are already starting to use the new login functionality which provides access to exclusive webinars and the chance to enter a prestigious national competition.

Tackling challenges

Moving events online has thrown up a number of challenges. The first one we tackled was safeguarding, with a new online safeguarding policy and regular discussions on best practice.

Another concern was the access to technology, and how we could reach young people who may not have home computers, good internet connections or are otherwise preoccupied with other more pressing matters such as caring duties in these times. In some cases we have been able to acquire laptops or wifi dongles for participants such as those on the Summer Schools. Generally we have designed our programmes to be as flexible as possible, with sessions being recorded so that participants can catch up at a time convenient to them.

Then there’s the programmes themselves to consider and how we can make our online offering engaging, unique and impactful for its intended audiences. We have learnt new skills and solidified knowledge in areas such as creating animations, recording and delivering webinars, using online teaching tools, and even copyright licensing! All this whilst balancing the challenges of working from home, interruptions from housemates (feline or otherwise) and difficult working conditions.

Applicant Support Programme

What’s exciting though is our newfound and developing skills have given us the confidence to rethink existing programmes and work out ways we might be able to supplement and improve existing activity with online delivery.

Perhaps the best example of this is in our new Cambridge Applicant Support Programme, an intensive and personalised support programme for WP students who are looking to apply to Cambridge this October. Combining one-to-one support, personal statement proof-reading, interview skills and admissions assessment workshops, collaborative group work and plenty of opportunities to ask questions, this offering has given applicants the confidence needed to submit a competitive application.

The idea has grown out of our Cambridge Applicant Residential which normally sees 50 students come to Cambridge for one weekend to focus on strengthening their applications. With the move to online, we were able to support many more students and hopefully in a way that was better paced, more personalised and longer-term.

The future

We certainly don’t have all the answers yet and much of this remains untested. But we are so pleased to be able to continue our work with young people and with how positive the reception has been to our efforts, despite a few technical hiccups.

Our teams have been working to adapt programmes for this academic year so that we can continue to work with and support both schools and students in this new reality. With schools now closed again the future is still very uncertain. A sudden return to face to face events is unlikely and we know that, even after we have left the pandemic behind, schools will be under significant pressure to support students who have missed a significant amount of schooling during this time.

When we are safely able to, we hope to be able to run programmes with a blended approach where face-to-face events are supplemented with online elements. With concerning research coming out regarding the growing educational gap for disadvantaged pupils, it has only spurred us on to do more and ensure that widening participation is at the top of everyone’s agenda. 

For more information about all our current outreach projects, visit our website. You can also read about our HE+ collaborative programme here.