Mentoring scheme proves it's all about who you know
Students from some of Scotland's poorest areas are seeing their prospects of going to university increase dramatically after taking part in one-to-one mentoring sessions with well-connected pensioners.
The sessions form part of a University of Strathclyde-run intergenerational mentoring project, which aims to help young people, who may be the first in their families to go on to higher education, to make professional connections.
Alastair Wilson, a senior research fellow at the university, is studying the impact of the scheme. His soon-to-be-published report underlines how remote tertiary education can seem in some communities: in one group of 26 students interested in higher education he looked at, only two had relatives who had already attended university.
In his report, Mr Wilson writes that some students who visited the University of Glasgow likened it to Hogwarts, the school from the Harry Potter series. This, he says, confirms their lack of familiarity with university surroundings.
He adds that popular culture often shapes students' ideas about a profession because they have no other reference points. For example, they might try to glean insights into the work of a doctor from the BBC television drama Holby City.
Mr Wilson's report continues: "The persistent focus on addressing the deficits of this group of young people needs to now shift towards challenging the structural barriers that can stunt their educational progress."
The mentoring scheme started modestly in 2010-11 but now provides mentors for 80 Glasgow students from three schools. The scheme's organisers hope that National Lottery funding will help the project to grow further.
At Springburn Academy, which has been involved from the start, the scheme has helped the school to increase the proportion of leavers who go on to higher education to nearly 23 per cent: 51 students have applied this year compared with only two a decade ago.
Headteacher Liz Ervine said it was crucial to replicate the connections that other, more advantaged young people already enjoyed. She added that there was nothing like having someone coming in from outside to make students feel special. "It's really important that you feel like you're good enough," she said.
A female student involved in the programme agreed. "Being treated equally by someone who had more experience gave me confidence in my abilities and putting forward my thoughts," she said.
One of the scheme's successes has been Paul, a former Springburn student interested in medicine. He was paired with a retired doctor but also met her partner, a retired statistician, and was introduced to neighbours including a dentist and optometrist, both of whom he joined for work experience. He is now in his second year at university, studying dentistry.
Speaking earlier this week at a University of Glasgow conference on improving access to higher education, Mr Wilson said that aspiring university students from deprived areas were often hit hard by setbacks such as a poor test result or an unsuccessful interview. Emotional support from mentors was "crucial", he told delegates.
There was a danger that the programme could "very easily be seen as Eliza Doolittle", Mr Wilson added. It was not a case of merely improving the students but also changing the way universities saw young people, he said.
He recalled one student who had gone to an interview for dentistry wearing a shell suit and did not get accepted; the next year he wore a suit and got through. One delegate, an education lecturer, suggested that if the applicant's attire was the problem, perhaps the university should change its policies.
Maureen McKenna, Glasgow's education director, told the conference that the proportion of her city's school-leavers going to university rose from 19 to 29 per cent between 2002 and 2012. "But, my goodness, we have a long way to go," she said.