Giving students a leg up with college partnerships

For disadvantaged learners, the financial barriers to university can be overwhelming – but scholarships offer a solution. David Pearson says a partnership between his sixth-form college group and a finance company is giving young people the chance to get a degree – and the skills that employers want
10th July 2020, 12:01am
Man In A Drawing Of A Rocket Surrounded By Stars, Planets & Aliens – Deprived Students College Partnerships Scholarships
David Pearson


Giving students a leg up with college partnerships

I met Trevor Gomes when he was an aspirational, high-performing sixth-form student with a promising career ahead of him. But he faced some significant barriers.

Gomes wanted to be the first person in his family to go to university. However, finances were a problem. Like many young people, he worked part-time to help support his family. Going to university would mean increasing his hours to fund the costs.

At best, his university experience would be a juggling act between studying and paying for it, and he would still graduate massively in debt. At worst, the financial barriers would become so overwhelming that he would be forced to give up or not go at all.

University is meant to be an exciting, challenging and rewarding experience. Yet figures released earlier this year show that two-thirds of universities have seen a rise in student drop-out rates. And students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now even more likely to give up their university courses within 12 months.

We wanted to make sure that students like Gomes were not placed in a position where they had to choose between supporting their family and going on to higher education. That's why we decided to set up a scholarship programme.

Christ the King is a group of three sixth forms in south-east London. The majority of our students are from the London Borough of Lewisham, which is one of the most deprived local authorities in England and among the worst four boroughs for educational outcomes. Around 68 per cent of our students come from a deprived area.

Yet almost 90 per cent of our level 3 students go on to university, including Russell Group institutions. A report by social mobility charity The Sutton Trust placed Christ the King Sixth Forms in the top 6 per cent of schools and colleges nationally for university progression.

How have we achieved this? We have designed a range of aspiration-raising programmes, but one of our most successful initiatives to date has been our scholarship partnership with Metric Capital Partners, a private capital firm.

This programme provides financial aid for academically able students from deprived backgrounds with university aspirations. Every year up to three students are chosen for the programme and given £15,000 each - £5,000 a year. Since the partnership was formed in 2014, 15 students have been awarded the scholarship.

The aim is to cover living expenses, to enable students to focus on their studies and not have to work full-time. The scholarship also helps to pay for expensive items like textbooks and laptops to facilitate learning.

Our connection with Metric Capital began with a student, Seni Fawehinmi. He met the firm's managing partner, John Sinik, through an American mentoring scheme called Big Brother, which was also set up in the UK.

They stayed in touch and, five years later, Fawehinmi came to study at Christ the King before going to university and embarking on a successful career in finance. He told Sinik about the challenges that many of his fellow students faced. Like him, they wanted to go to university but there were a lot of economic sacrifices that they, and their families, would have to make in order for this to happen.

Sinik met with our executive principal, Shireen Razey, to discuss ideas, and together they developed the scholarship programme.

So, how does it work? The college selects candidates based on academic achievement, aspirations and financial background. Students are then introduced to the Metric Capital team and undergo an interview with them. The point of the interview is to help the firm to understand each student's motivation and to emphasise to students that there is an element of responsibility attached to the scholarship.

Students must achieve a certain academic standing to continue to the next year and they are expected to provide a termly report to the firm.

The main challenge for us has been selecting the students. Obviously, we want to minimise the disappointment of not being chosen. There are many who need, and deserve, support, so it can be difficult for us to choose. Ultimately, we look for students who have experienced challenges - personal, financial or both; have improved academically; and have shown dedication to their studies.

The vast majority of students we put forward do end up being awarded the scholarship. And, so far, all but one scholarship student has either graduated from university or is still studying.

Not only has the funding enabled them to go to university, it has also helped to enrich their experience. They graduate with less debt and go on to thrive in their careers, in areas such as consulting, accountancy and computer science.

It has been incredibly rewarding for us to see the progression of the students who have successfully completed the programme. One of them is Trevor Gomes.

After being awarded the scholarship, Gomes went to the University of Westminster to study business management in 2015. He graduated with a first-class degree and was the highest achiever on his course, out of 500 students. Gomes then joined BT, where he now works as a transformation analyst. He is also a 5G transformation leader for EE.

Now 23, Gomes is a member of Christ the King's partnership board, helping to steer our partnerships strategy. In October, he launched his own skills development programme, Elevate, with support from BT, which aims to equip our students with the skills, knowledge and experience required for the world of work and higher education. So far, 14 of our students have benefited from the face-to-face Elevate programme, and its new virtual webinar series is aimed at reaching more than 1,000 students.

Gomes' motivation is clear: he wants to help young people, just as he was helped.

The scholarship has been a hugely successful and rewarding programme to be involved in. My advice to other colleges considering a similar partnership would be to keep in close contact with the students during their studies, and to make sure someone is there to offer support if needed.

Keep in regular contact with your partner, too, and provide opportunities for them to be involved in the college. For example, Sinik is a member of our partnership board and attends regular meetings. This enables him to see what's happening at the sixth form and the challenges that our students are facing.

Stay in touch with your alumni. Encourage them to remain involved in college life and to give something back by helping current students. Our alumni sit on our partnership board, visit the campus to give motivational talks, offer mentoring support and provide new links to employers, and this works exceptionally well to raise aspirations.

Academic achievement is important, but in addition to this we also aim to develop our students as a whole person - to increase their ambition, opportunities and employability so that they progress to university, graduate and enjoy a successful career.

Engaging with businesses helps to provide a breadth of excellent opportunities for students. As we have found, there are many different and innovative ways that successful partnerships can enable students to realise their dreams.

David Pearson is the director of wider learning, careers and partnerships at Christ the King Sixth Forms

This article originally appeared in the 10 July 2020 issue under the headline "Partnerships let students follow their dreams"

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