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Transition to new ways of studying

At the other end of the Goals project age range, the aims are a little different. Secondary 5 and 6 students know what a university is and may have applied for a place in higher education, but they do not know what to expect when they get there, says Top-Up director Fiona Black, of Glasgow University's Widening Participation Service.

"We provide them with essential study skills to help them cope with the transition from school to university or college," she explains.

"It's all about generic study skills: critical thinking, taking lecture notes, structuring an argument, taking part in a debate, thinking about things from different points of view. But we realised that this could be a bit dry."

So, the entire 12-week higher education experience is structured around an investigation into one aspect - art, media, tourism, politics, science - of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Pupils attend a lecture, take notes, prepare seminar presentations and write an assignment. A good performance can compensate for not quite achieving the entrance grades for some courses at Goals participating institutions.

As with all Goals elements, university students - in this case postgraduates - work with the pupils, visiting their school for an hour each week and supporting them during campus visits.

These are always high points for the pupils, says Ms Black. "They are nervous because they're going to take part in a real seminar with people they haven't met before. They're thinking everybody will know more than they do. But having done it, they come out really buzzing. And of course it means their early days at university aren't nearly as daunting."

Research has shown that efforts to widen participation must do more than get pupils into higher education, says Ms Black. Once at university or college, a higher proportion of students from schools with low participation rates fail to complete their studies.

Top-Up students, on the other hand, feel much better prepared and perform better in first year exams than comparator groups, "despite many more having come from the extremely low participation schools known to be at risk".

Evidence for the effectiveness of Goals is also beginning to emerge elsewhere, says the director of Goals, Lorraine Judge.

"We are attempting to overturn deeply rooted inequalities, which won't be achieved overnight. The first Goals primary pupils are still only in S3," she says. "But there are many encouraging signs that Goals is beginning to impact in a very positive way, raising pupils' awareness and encouraging them to apply to higher and further education in greater numbers."

Scottish Executive figures show an 11.6 per cent increase from 2000 to 2003 in pupils from Goals schools entering higher education, she says, but Scottish state schools as a whole show no increase over that period.

Teachers say the key to Goals' success is that it replaces fear with confidence. "When it's time to apply to university, it is lack of confidence that can hold these kids back," says Mhairi Moore, the head of academic guidance at Eastbank Academy in Glasgow.

"Top-Up pupils attend a lecture in December, then go back in March for their seminar. You can see them growing almost physically in confidence.

When they go to university, they are very familiar with what is expected of them."

Pupils need to be prepared for the transition to university, Ms Moore believes. "A lot of kids think it's a continuation of school, but it's totally different," she says.

"Campus visits are the most valuable part of the Goals programme, letting children see what a university is like and that lecturers are people they can talk to.

"The campus visits give kids the confidence they badly need."

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