Deprived pupils urged to aim for top professions

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Widening-access scheme seeks to raise aspirations regardless of academic ability

GCSE pupils from deprived backgrounds are being inspired to become doctors and dentists in an aspiration-raising initiative led by Cardiff University.

Academics hope to dispel myths about medicine - including the old adage that teachers beget teachers and doctors beget doctors - as part of Step- Up to Uni. It is part of the university's Widening Access programme that is proving popular with Year 11s from disadvantaged Communities First areas. It offers many subjects, but the health scheme is one of the most popular.

Annie Mitchell, manager of Widening Access, says children who do not have a health professional in the family face a cultural barrier about going into medicine.

"The children often don't understand what they need to do to get into health-related courses such as medicine or dentistry. And in a school where very few children aspire to those courses, the teaching staff may not know all the details."

The scheme is open to all Year 11 pupils in participating schools, regardless of academic ability. They can take part in dozens of events during the year, including summer schools and revision classes.

Ms Mitchell says 15 and 16-year-olds face crucial decisions about their future, particularly if they want to do health-related courses such as medicine or nursing.

"We explain to them that they need to get good GCSEs," she said. "I think there's a problem with secondary schools that are putting children through GCSEs early. There seems to be a movement towards doing more subjects than needed, potentially at the risk of quality. But they also need to start thinking about community work."

She said pupils could volunteer with the St John Ambulance, take the Duke of Edinburgh Award, work in a retirement home or even train children in their local football teams.

"The Welsh baccalaureate can be very useful. It provides some of the skills that medicine requires, such as community work and volunteering."

While A-levels in biology and chemistry are nearly always a prerequisite for medical degrees, she believes universities are becoming increasingly open to different routes.

"A-levels should be qualifications for children who learn in a particular way, whereas others learn better with more vocational qualifications. We want to change this idea that you have to be Einstein to go to university. We have forgotten what a liberal education is - it means you can apply your educational ability to any task in life. Some people dismiss it, but a degree that you enjoy will open doors, not shut them."

Although the Widening Access office is based at Cardiff University, much of its funding comes from Reaching Wider, a project run by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

Young people on the Step-Up scheme who go on to university are encouraged to return to their old schools to talk to teenagers about their experiences.

"First-year undergraduates are ideal because children can see that the person is only a few years older than them. Children of 15 don't need a lot of technical or factual knowledge - they need to be inspired," Ms Mitchell said.

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