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by Molly Packwood

Contextual Outreach Coordinator at the University of Leeds

posted on 11 Feb '23

A parent guide to university widening participation and access programmes

Broadly speaking, the phrase ‘widening participation', or ‘WP’, pretty much does what it says on the tin. It enables students from a broader range of backgrounds and personal experiences to access and succeed in higher education, by offering additional support to students from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups.

How are students selected for widening participation programmes?

WP and access programmes identify students through a combination of several different criteria, which often vary from programme to programme. One of the most common criteria is to do with a student’s home postcode – programmes use data produced by the government (POLAR, TUNDRA, IMD) to identify and target specific areas of the country where students are more likely to be at a disadvantage.

Another common factor is having a low household income, which is most easily assessed by looking at which students have received free school meals whilst they were growing up. Looking at the overall performance of a student’s secondary school in comparison to other schools in the country can also help identify students who would benefit from additional support, as can a variety of other characteristics, which include but are not limited to:

  • Students who have spent time in public or kinship care while growing up.
  • Students from minority ethnic groups (including Gypsy & Roma students).
  • Students with refugee status.
  • Students whose parents did not go to university

Image of a parent discussing next steps with building blocks to illustrate a career path

How are widening participation students supported?

The support offered by WP and access programmes can begin at any age, although Year 12 students are the most commonly targeted, and will always involve some form of information, advice, and guidance (IAG) about higher education, which is delivered either in school, at a university campus, or online. These IAG sessions can include things like:

  • Academic workshops and tasters.
  • Research and study skills sessions.
  • Practical support with the UCAS application process.
  • General information sessions about what life at university is like.

Students may also have the opportunity to take part in one-to-one tutoring, summer schools and residentials, cultural experience days, and visits to local industries or other universities.

In addition to the support offered by the programmes themselves, universities may also offer additional consideration at the application stage to students who have taken part. This varies from place to place, but it can come in the form of automatic progression to interview, reduced entry requirements, or even a guaranteed offer for certain courses.

I would always recommend checking the relevant institution’s website first, and getting in touch if there is anything you are unsure about. Ultimately, those of us who work in WP want to help as many students as possible overcome any barriers to higher education, so it is always worth an email or a phone call to see what can be done to help.

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