Widening participation in higher education is important for so many reasons. Students from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to miss out on the life-changing opportunities associated with higher education, compared to their more advantaged peers. One barrier is that the most competitive universities often require young people to demonstrate skills that cannot be acquired through curriculum learning alone.
One solution to this problem is delivering programmes of learning beyond the curriculum.
Organisations like The Edge Foundation are promoting the benefits of learning through authentic and complex problems, which is music to our ears at The Brilliant Club. For our part, we help widen participation in higher education by mobilising the PhD community to help less advantaged students to access the most competitive universities, and crucially, to succeed when they get there.
The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme trains PhD tutors to deliver challenging courses to young people on subjects beyond the curriculum, focused on the tutor’s area of expertise. Aimed at small groups aged 8 to 18, it is composed of seven tutorials, two visits to competitive universities, a final written assignment (marked using university-style grading), and a subsequent impact report for participating schools. You can learn more about the programme here.
As The Brilliant Club’s Chief Impact and Strategy Officer, my interest lies in understanding whether the programme is making a difference to student outcomes.
Since its inception, The Brilliant Club has been committed to research and evaluation. For over five years, our Research and Impact team have worked to understand the efficacy of The Scholars Programme. We’ve been able to give the charity that level of objectivity to say: ‘Yes, our programme works – and here’s why.’
To illustrate, The Brilliant Club has plenty of data showing that students on The Scholars Programme progress to the most competitive universities. By using their own vast repositories of data, UCAS was able to help us demonstrate that students on the programme are significantly more likely to secure a place at the most competitive universities compared to their peers. This data has been instrumental in measuring the programme’s impact.
Additionally, we’ve been able to drive forward robust methods of summative assessment.
As mentioned, a core part of The Scholars Programme is for students to complete a final assignment, marked using university-style grading. Our research has allowed us to make iterative changes to the mark schemes, ensuring they’re as robust as possible. Now, when students get a First or a 2:1, we can confidently state to what degree they’ve improved their critical thinking, subject knowledge and written communication skills. We’ve been on a similar journey with attitudinal and behavioural measures, examining students' confidence in their ability to progress to university, pre- and post-participation.
It is important to us that we continue to develop the programme to further enhance student outcomes.
For example, by partnering with the external organisation, DataKind UK, we found that older students on our programme faced greater difficulties in submitting their final assignments compared to younger students. Using these insights, we have put in place behavioural nudges to increase submission rates for Key Stage 5 students.
More broadly, our research also assesses the added value that initiatives like The Scholars Programme can bring to developing education and employment skills. We recently hosted a fascinating roundtable on this topic, which you can read about here.