University Tips Blog
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A headshot image of the author, Jon Cheek

by Jon Cheek


posted on 23 Oct '23

Widening participation and access programmes – what support is available for schools?

Text provided by Gagan Chaggar, from the University of West London, for the UniTasterDays Teachers' Guide to University.

Universities are keen to support you with your school priorities, such as supporting attainment and aspirations, and providing guidance and opportunities for learners who are underrepresented in higher education.

As a former secondary teacher, I wish I had known about these great opportunities. So to support you, I have included some information below.

What is widening participation?

Widening Participation focuses on supporting learners from under-represented groups in higher education, who may miss out on the opportunity to progress their education. It’s all about addressing inequalities and priorities in groups and communities, and exploring options in the world of university, apprenticeships and work.

Why do universities offer this service?

Universities create Access and Participation Plans (also known as APPs) which outline how they will improve equality of opportunity through widening participation and fair access, as directed by our regulator, the Office for Students (also known as OfS).

The Office for Students ask universities specifically to ‘improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education’. This work varies for many universities, but we are all directed to deliver projects with thorough evaluations and impact measures.

Department names for those delivering this activity usually contain some, or a combination, of the following words and teams:
• Access and Participation
• Outreach
• Schools and Colleges
• Widening Access/Participation

What can a university do for you and local communities? An example.

Here is an idea of what universities offer, based around University of West London activities:

- Long term projects: Young People’s Lectures development programme, National Saturday Clubs, Storytelling projects, in specific settings such as Pupil Referral Units.
- For specific groups: care leaver cooking sessions, mature learner programmes, specific projects aimed at working-class communities.
- Career development activities: work experience for widening participation students, discover university days, subject taster days.
- Ad hoc programmes: working with local schools, colleges, councils, community and voluntary organisations to develop reactive programmes.

If you have an idea for a project, please do contact a university as there may be flexibility in their offering.

Who benefits from widening participation work?

Widening participation teams work with those who meet specific criteria, as set by the Office for Students and universities. As an example, this includes the following for the University of West London:
• young people from a working-class background
• learners eligible for free school meals.
• disabled learners
• mature learners
• care leavers and looked after children
• young and adult carers
• learners with no parental/carer history of higher education in the UK
• learners from the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller backgrounds
• refugees and asylum seekers

Remember, even if you know your students do not have an interest in going to university, you can still engage in activities.

How do I work with a university?

A quick internet search should reveal your local universities. Then visit these universities’ websites for details about their outreach, widening participation or schools/college work. You can also browse opportunities on UniTasterDays which is a national directory of university opportunities for schools.

You can contact them to generally connect or with a specific request. Also, get signed up for any newsletters and pass these links onto other relevant people at your institution.

My top tip for teachers

I strongly recommend seeking out teacher networking opportunities with universities as a great way of meeting people, receiving innovative continuing professional development and supporting your most vulnerable learners.

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