Reach scheme widens the net

Coordinated by the University of Glasgow, the programme aims to improve progression rates to higher education. Jackie Cosh reports

Jackie Cosh

Psychology graduate Jenna-Marie Mullen is back at her old school. She left St Thomas Aquinas Secondary seven years ago to study at the nearby University of Glasgow. Today, as part of the university's Reach programme, she is working with fourth-year pupils from St Thomas Aquinas and Drumchapel High who are hoping to study for a professional degree at the university.

The Reach scheme is part of the university's widening participation programme and was set up two years ago with money from the Scottish Funding Council. The University of Glasgow coordinates it for the west of Scotland, working with 92 schools with lower-than-average progression rates to university.

Through a mixture of in-school sessions, campus visits and a week-long summer school, over three years - S4 to S6 - it sets out to prepare students who are hoping to study dentistry, law, medicine, or veterinary medicine.

Today is the first session and the group is learning what a lecture is and what their week at university is likely to consist of. They think about their individual courses and what qualifications and work experience they will need to get in.

In a couple of weeks' time, they will visit the university campus, where they will chat to students and staff and take part in some practical work related to their course. Details of the course also get added to their Ucas form and successful participation is taken into account by admissions officers within the university.

"In the schools we go in, the pupils don't realise that they need extra skills and work experience," says Jenna-Marie. "The course gives them the confidence to apply. They are capable; they just don't know it. These students don't have the connections to organise work experience. We give them the missing link."

Fifteen-year-old Kaitlin Yull is in S4 at St Thomas Aquinas and is thinking of applying to study either medicine or law. "I have always been interested in studying medicine and would like to be a paediatrician. I have learned that I need to focus more. It is a lot more work than I thought, but it's a good challenge for me," she says. "I am going to look for voluntary work and be more prepared."

This is the first year these schools have taken part in the programme and depute headteacher John Dowds is convinced that they will see benefits. "It is very worthwhile to get pupils interested at this stage and to get them motivated," he says. "We couldn't do this in schools. We would attempt it but experts and new faces help significantly.

"Also, when we were looking for pupils who were interested, we found that other students voiced an interest in other subjects. It got them talking about what grades they need."

The Reach programme has followed on from the success of the Top-Up Programme, which the university has been running since 1999 and as part of the Focus West programme since 2008.

Neil Croll coordinates both. "Top-Up is a 12-week programme where they learn critical thinking, note-taking, time management and about attending lectures. It is about moving away from rote learning.

"We are not teaching them new things, just about learning in a different way. It is about giving advice at the appropriate stage, showing pupils that they are entitled to go to university".

Sixteen-year-old Matthew Aird is a fifth-year pupil at Whitehill Secondary in Glasgow where he has been attending the Top-Up Programme sessions. He hopes to study civil engineering at university.

"We have been learning to discuss as a group. Usually I talk a lot to other people, so I'm holding back a bit more. I talk over people, and I try and interrupt, not letting other people get a word in," he says.

While Reach is still new, the university has kept track of Top-Up Programme students who have entered university. Retention rates for those who have been through the programme have been consistently higher than students from similar backgrounds who did not go through it.

Vicky Madigan, employability support officer for Glasgow City Council, has come along today to view the Reach session.

"It is a brilliant idea," she says. "It opens up university to kids who are not sure exactly what they want to do or who don't know how to get into medicine. Kids don't know that they need experience or they won't get an interview. It hones their experience, knowledge and confidence.

"We tend to find that the ones with the more academic skills don't tend to have the social skills. It is not just about being academic, which some don't realise. It is good that they can speak to people not that much older than themselves."


The Top-Up Programme is aimed at fifth- and sixth-year pupils and is an element of Focus West, the west of Scotland roll-out of the Scottish Funding Council's Schools for Higher Education Programme.

From November to March, pupils attend sessions where they are graded on a written assignment and on their participation in a seminar.

Thirty target schools - where progression rates to university are 22 per cent or below - take part, as well as 10 local authority-funded schools.

At the end of the course, each student's profile is passed on to the higher education institute and this can result in a guaranteed offer being made.

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Jackie Cosh

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