Is your school offering super-curricular activities?

Students need more than qualifications to get a place at a top university – and super-curricular activities are giving their applications that boost. But how do they work in practice?
24th September 2021, 2:47pm


Is your school offering super-curricular activities?
Super-curricular Activities: Are You Offering Them?

“Students today need more than just qualifications if they want to go to university. They won’t get offers unless they’ve got wider super-curricular experiences on their applications. That’s what universities are telling us,” says Jim Robinson, assistant principal at New College Bradford.

David Shaw, principal at Bilborough Sixth Form College, agrees: “Certainly, in the most competitive universities, that is definitely the case. It varies in terms of where they’re applying but, wherever it is, [super-curricular activities] will help them and in some cases, students will struggle without these things.” 

Super-curricular activities, then, are important. But what exactly are they?

Many schools and colleges will be offering them already, says Kathryn Brindley-Edwards, a senior lead practitioner for post-16 at a national trust - but they just won’t be using the phrase “super-curricular”. 

“The activities are anything that go beyond what students are learning in the classroom, but are still directly related to their qualifications,” she explains. “It’s not enough now to just be doing a little bit of additional reading related to the subjects that they’re studying.”

More on higher education:

It’s important to note that super-curricular activities are not the same as extra-curricular ones: these are activities that are intrinsically linked to subjects. For example, students might complete a massive open online course (Mooc), attend a lecture or take part in competitions related to a school subject. These boost applications because they allow students to demonstrate that they have “genuine interest and passion” in that subject, says Brindley-Edwards.

And it has arguably never been more important for students to demonstrate that passion.

Universities have become massively oversubscribed - particularly those that are the most competitive to get into - and, this year, many even offered cash or free accommodation to those prepared to defer for a year or transfer to other universities. Higher education institutions are becoming extremely selective about who they offer places to - and students need to go above and beyond to secure their futures. 

Super-curricular: how are schools and colleges offering it?

Luckily, for schools and colleges looking to improve their provision in this area, there are already plenty of examples of good practice going on at further education colleges across the country that they could learn from. 

Throughout lockdown, New College Bradford introduced a “Read, Watch, Do” list, which highlights activities that students can do remotely and independently online: for example, Moocs and guest lectures from employers as well as universities.

Now that students are back on campus, those remote activities are continuing alongside in-person ones such as the business competition BASE (in which students pitch business ideas), trips to galleries and museums, and taster days at universities.

Meanwhile, at Bilborough College, staff have built an app that lists all the super-curricular activities available for students, and they have seen huge take-up from this. They also encourage students to take part in subject-specific competitions - such as The Young Geographer of the Year, or the Olympiad competitions in science and maths - and hold a foreign exchange in which students go to work in an English school in France, Germany or Spain for a few weeks. 

Richard Huish College in Taunton is also doing plenty of work in this area. As well as hosting “RicTalks”, which see external speakers deliver talks to the students, the college has developed a specific medical enrichment programme for anyone wanting to go into medicine, dentistry or veterinary science, in which students can explore terminology and current issues within their chosen field, as well as complete practice interviews and get support with the entry tests.

All of these activities have led to high numbers of students going on to higher education: at Bradford, it’s 81 per cent, at Bilborough it’s 70 per cent and at Richard Huish it’s 75 per cent.

The impact on mental health

The success rates for applications to university might be good, but participation in super-curricular activities obviously takes time and energy - Brindley-Edwards says that, on average, students should be spending one to two hours per week on super-curricular activities in each subject.

We know that being a teenager is overwhelming - and applying to university is stressful. So, is there a danger that students’ mental health and wellbeing can suffer from this extra workload?

Yes, says Brindley-Edwards - taking on these extra tasks won’t be suitable for everyone and, if students are struggling to make progress in their subjects, they shouldn’t be expected to complete three Moocs a week, for example. 

However, Robinson says that actually taking part in the programmes can have the opposite effect for many students, and alleviate stress. 

“All activities are voluntary: it’s not a disciplinary process, it’s not like you haven’t signed up to this and therefore we’re putting in this intervention. And, actually, for most of our students, the pressure of going to university or higher-level apprenticeship is lessened by doing super-curriculum activities - they feel more competent in themselves and know they have done what it takes to get in.”

How to build a super-curricular offer

So, with the expectation there from universities - and with the benefits for students clear - how can schools and colleges increase their offer and set up a more extensive programme?

1. Survey the students

Start with the students, says Robinson  - don’t just ask them what activities they’d find fun but what kinds of things they need to get into their chosen courses. 

“If you start with the point of view of the students and say, ‘if you want to go on to study a law degree, what do you need? What has the university told you will be helpful?’ Make sure you look at what both sides of the equation want and then provide those opportunities,” he says. 

2. Ask departments to plan

The next stage, Robinson says, is to ask departments to come up with a subject-specific enrichment plan that runs over two years, and details the activities they’ll offer, when guest speakers will come in, how they’ll connect to employers and which competitions they’ll offer. 

3. Look at what support is on offer

Schools and colleges need to make the most of the external support that is available to them here, says Shaw. Local businesses, universities and alumni can all make great contributions towards activities and, in some cases, their time will be free. 

“There are lots of free activities out there - charities offer a lot of different programmes, as do universities. For example, Canterbury Christchurch University offers our students free workshops on critical thinking,” he says. 

As well as external support, teachers should look internally, too, he adds. Are there any support staff who are really passionate about certain subjects and are happy to facilitate the activities or organise competitions, for example? 

4. Build super-curriculum into registration 

At Bradford, the expectation to complete some sort of super-curricular activity is discussed at enrolment and built into the registration process, so students don’t know anything different, says Robinson - this then makes it easier for staff, too, because students are signed up for sessions from the very start of term. 

5. Get the balance between student-led and teacher-led activities right 

Organising the offer can take up a lot of teacher time, says Shaw, and it’s important to get the balance right between teacher-led activities and student-led ones. 

“Students should be encouraged to run their own radio shows, for example, or their own TV channels. We also have a lot of student-led clubs and societies, which can offer super-curricular opportunities - and we do offer them training initially on how these things should be run,” he says. 

6. Talk about a plan B 

Although taking part in the activities will boost student applications, it’s important to always talk about a plan B, says Becky Flower, vice-principal (student support) at Richard Huish.

“You need to have those really supportive conversations about not setting your expectations too high and always having a plan B,” she says. “Make sure you stress that not everyone can get in and that there are always other options.” 

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