Innovative practice - A brilliant idea

PhD students are being brought into classrooms to raise children's higher education aspirations

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The background

The Brilliant Club, founded a year and a half ago, is a non-profit organisation set up to get more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in to top universities in the UK.

The programme enlists PhD students from top universities to work with school pupils and raise their aspirations.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently under-represented at top universities, with only 2 per cent of children eligible for free school meals and 18 per cent of children from non-selective state schools gaining a place at a highly selective university, compared with 48 per cent of children from independent schools. The programme was set up by two teachers, Jonathan Sobczyk and Simon Coyle, in a bid to change this.

The project

So far, the Brilliant Club has recruited 54 PhD students, who have delivered university-style tutorials to small groups of high-performing pupils at 36 schools.

"Schools are expected to contribute to the programme, which can cost up to #163;2,000. This cost has been subsidised as we have some funding from the Sutton Trust," says Brilliant Club co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Sobczyk. "The programme spans a year. It begins with a trip to the school's partner university, where the pupils go on a tour and meet the PhD student they are going to be working with. They do tutorials and a dissertation, and at the end there is a graduation ceremony at the university."

Jo Firth is studying for a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Oxford. She has been working with pupils from the London Academy (the school that first piloted the programme). "I was pleased to see how clever the children were and how engaged," she says. "I think it helps to take away the scariness and stigma that can surround universities such as Oxford."

This year, the Brilliant Club is expanding into the West Midlands, and in five years' time Mr Sobczyk hopes the programme will be operating in London, the West and East Midlands and the North East, and on the brink of a national roll-out.

Tips for schools

Carly Mitchell, deputy principal of the London Academy, advises the following for schools considering working with the Brilliant Club:

Ensure that the pupils who are part of the club are not static throughout their years at the school. It must be a programme that all pupils, regardless of prior attainment or other factors, see as a realistic opportunity for them.

Running the programme during curriculum time, rather than as a lunchtime club or after school, raises its profile. It shows that we take the business of accessing top universities seriously.

There must be "buy in" from the headteacher and the senior leadership team.

Evidence that it works?

Mitchell has found that "students are talking realistically about being students at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham and it has become the language around the school. They are now aware of what the Russell Group universities are. This is from pupils whose families have never been to university before."

Loresa Dragusha, who is in Year 12 at the London Academy, says: "We did university-style tutorials and looked at whether terrorism can be justified. Before, I saw Oxford as a place I wouldn't be able to go to, but now I have been there I realise I can."

Mohammed Omar, also in Year 12, says: "Not many pupils at this school aim to go to university, but I feel it is much more achievable since doing the programme."

The project

Approach: PhD students from top universities give groups of high- performing pupils from disadvantaged schools university-style tutorials. The programme starts and ends with a trip to a top university

Started: March 2011. The programme has already recruited and trained up 54 PhD students, who have worked with nearly 1,000 pupils from 36 schools in London

Leaders: Jonathan Sobczyk and Simon Coyle, co-founders of the Brilliant Club

The school

Name: London Academy

Type: Non-selective, mixed, all-ability academy

Pupils: 1,400

Age range: 11-18

Ofsted overall rating: Good (2011).

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