How great student ambassadors can make a real difference

Many universities offer students the chance to act as ambassadors alongside their studies. It’s a winning idea all-round: students can build their skills and share their experiences of university life, and universities can really connect with potential new students in a genuine, authentic way.

But it’s vital to make sure that the any ambassador programme is of high quality. Ambassadors need to understand their role, and how to interact effectively with young people and to ensure the best outcomes for the young people they’re working with.

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While there’s no standard for student ambassador training, we’ve developed a programme of workshops for undergraduates that makes sure ambassadors are equipped to work to their best across a wide variety of widening participation contexts.

For the past few years we’ve trained ambassadors for UNIQ, Oxford University’s flagship summer school programme.

I found it really motivating and inspiring to think about what UNIQ’s purpose is and how we can go the extra mile to support students as much as possible
— Katie Truslove, UNIQ Ambassador

Our training helped ambassadors to frame their contribution, understanding why their role is vital to the intervention’s success, from logistical support to leading sessions

It helped them develop confidence in interactions, so ambassadors become comfortable with the dynamics of individual, small group and large-scale interactions, and their responsibilities in these situations

Discussing the scenarios in pastoral care … brought up issues I know I would have struggled to respond to on my own
— Emma Hogg, UNIQ Ambassador

And it helps them implement effective techniques so they can integrate effective teaching techniques into their practice

We get great feedback from the sessions: every single one of the participants told us they left the workshop with clear strategies they could use during the Summer School.

Reminded me how much I was capable of and made low points into lessons
— Kyra Leyland, UNIQ Ambassador

“Our work with Causeway will transform young people’s lives”

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We’ve been working with Mildenhall College Academy (MCA) since 2017, so we took a moment to catch up with Katie Sanders-Pope, Access Champion and Director of Sixth Form at the academy, to reflect on the programme’s impact on her students, staff and her role as a senior leader.

MCA is an academy in a semi-rural area of Suffolk, close to military air bases. Around 50 per cent of students live in areas with low progression to Higher Education (HE).

MCA is part of our Access Champions programme, where we train a lead teacher to make sustainable changes to their systems for progression to HE. In addition to our CPD, one of our Progression Specialists has also mentored students at MCA’s Sixth Form. Progression Specialists are expert mentors who work one-to-one with students from low progression areas to guide them through the HE application process.

Impact highlights

Progression Specialist mentoring

Progression Specialists support students to be their best selves.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

For Katie, having a Progression Specialist working with the Sixth Form was an invaluable asset to the academy – mentors have the time to provide the in-depth, sustained support to students who need it most.

She valued the knowledge and skills in progression that an expert mentor can contribute to the Sixth Form, and felt that her students really benefitted from the influence of someone external to the academy - “Mentors wouldn’t accept ‘I don’t want to go university’ as a first response – they have the time, knowledge and skills to build a relationship and unpick this statement with young people. Students need this time with experts.”

Katie felt that MCA’s Progression Specialist supported her students to be their “best selves”, as the mentoring sessions not only helped students to develop the confidence to apply, but also equipped them with the key skills and knowledge to secure places at their chosen institutions.

Our evaluation found that Progression Specialist mentoring increases offers to HE, in particular offers to higher-tariff institutions, so we were delighted to hear that MCA’s mentees have received offers across diverse subjects, from Medicine and Chemistry to Music Production and Accounting.

Academy systems

Early in the Access Champions programme, Katie decided to focus on implementing OSCAR, our online system for improving university applications and references, as the main process for references and personal statements in the academy.

With OSCAR, our subject references are a million times better - the programme has significantly upskilled our staff.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

Katie reports that the programme has “significantly upskilled” her staff, as using OSCAR subject guidance has cut down the number of corrections she has needed to make in comparison to previous years, saving time and ensuring higher quality references.

With OSCAR resources, references are more positive and include strong examples of students’ subject-specific skills and qualities. Katie has found this particularly useful for potential medicine and midwifery students, where relevant examples are vital for high-quality applications.

Katie has found that, since introducing OSCAR, the quality of students’ personal statements has “massively” improved, reducing the number of drafts students have needed to submit for feedback.

CPD for Senior Leaders

Our Access Champions programme supports senior leaders in post-16 provision to put together a development plan – a list of actions and targets for improving systems for progression.

For Katie, this has helped her to develop a strategic approach to progression, identifying problem areas and the key actions needed to improve her academy’s systems.

Katie feels that MCA’s work with us will “transform young people’s lives”, as, since making the improvements to her academy’s systems, every single student that has applied to HE has received an offer.

Following this outstanding success, Katie is motivated to continue improving Mildenhall’s systems for progression. Her next steps are to work on MCA’s approach to additional admissions testing and to build a process for tracking students’ interactions with HE.

We’re so pleased to hear about MCA’s successes and look forward to checking in again in the future to find out how they’re getting on.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”

We work with schools and colleges all around the country, in all sorts of circumstances. Here we catch up with one of our Access Champions schools in the West Midlands, which we’ve been working with over the past few months as part of our work with the Sutton Trust.

St Edmund Campion Catholic School is an average-sized comprehensive in Erdington, Birmingham, and we’ve been working with Sandra Griffiths, who is the Post-16 Learning Leader at the school.

The sixth form has 130 students on roll. 28% of students are in receipt of free school meals, and a high percentage of sixth form students would be the first generation of their family to go to HE.

This is one of the key things we look out for when working with schools, as there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that family background is a key factor in improving social mobility.

Early on in the programme we ask Access Champions to look at how they currently support students when choosing to apply to university, and help them identify quick changes to make to those systems that could make an immediate impact on students.

One such change that Sandra made was to move progression activities, such as personal statement and reference writing, to earlier in the school year. A small change, but one that has had a powerful impact: students now get more support with admissions interviews.

This means they have more confidence, and improving mock interviews for competitive courses, such as Medicine and Dentistry, had led to two students getting offers to study Medicine this year, as well as others getting offers to study Nursing and Teaching.

On top of those simple changes, we also help Access Champions to look more long-term. Sandra’s plan for progression is to support students with informed decision-making and to organise access to HE days for Year 12 students in collaboration with local HE institutions.

We’re really looking forward to seeing how those plans come to fruition over the coming weeks and months, as this year’s university application cycle begins in earnest.

“One of the best applications I have ever read”

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At the end of the school year, we take a moment to catch up with one of our Access Champions to reflect on the programme and the impact it’s been making on students on the ground in Nottinghamshire.

Quarrydale Academy is a school that serves former mining communities in Nottinghamshire, where there are high levels of unemployment: 92% of students live in POLAR Quintile 1 areas, meaning they are among the least likely to go to university. There are 130 students on roll in years 12 and 13.

Leanne Straw is Quarrydale’s UCAS co-ordinator, and the school’s Access Champion. We’ve been working with her over the past year to understand the school’s situation, and identify ways to improve the academy’s support for students when working out what they want to do at the age of 18.

One of the first things we ask Access Champions to do is identify areas for improvement within the school. During her first year with us, Leanne prioritised changing Quarrydale’s approach to personal statements and references, and using OSCAR, our online platform, to personalise Information, Advice and Guidance for students during tutorial periods.

One of our Progression Specialists also spent time in Quarrydale providing one-to-one mentoring to students,  an important channel of support for prospective students in Years 10-11.

Leanne told us that being on the Access Champions programme has “helped a lot with planning”, providing structure for, and evidence to support, changes she’s made in the sixth form.

Using our OSCAR system has “completely changed our approach to personal statements and references.” Personal statements are now much more focused on specific courses and all “now include a topic of academic interest”, which helps present students in the best possible light to admissions tutors and offsets the disadvantage that many students face from a lack of opportunity to take part in work experience or placements while in sixth form. This led to one applicant, applying for Nursing at Nottingham University, being told by the admissions tutor that their personal statements was “one of the best applications I have ever read”.

Students have provided Leanne with “incredibly positive” feedback about mentoring, which has provided support that parents may not always be able to provide.

After analysing data, Leanne and her team will be targeting an increase in young male applicants applying for more competitive courses such as Medicine and Teaching in the next UCAS cycle.

We’re delighted to see how well things are going at Quarrydale, and look forward to working with Leanne over the next school year to make even more of a difference.

“As a teacher with 25 years' experience, the programme has been a revelation”

As we begin the next round of training days for our Access Champions schools, we caught up with one Access Champion to find out what difference the programme has made to the way she helps prepare students for applying to higher education.

Teresa Lamb is the Head of Sixth Form and Access Champion at Brimsham Green School, situated in a new town ten miles outside Bristol. It’s part of a consortium with two other schools in South Gloucestershire and there are around 140 students on the roll in Years 12 and 13. Roughly half of students progress to higher education each year.

One of the first things we help Access Champions with is an assessment of the current situation in school, using our benchmarks to identify areas where provision can be improved. During this assessment, Teresa prioritised:

  1. Running staff CPD across the three schools in the consortium.
  2. Reducing workload on senior staff by sharing good practice and strengthening systems for writing references using OSCAR.
  3. Changing provision for parents on HE progression and bringing forward the school’s HE information evening.

Having identified areas for improvement, our Access Champions get support to put together a development plan that outlines the steps to take to make the changes necessary.

At the end of the first year of the programme, Teresa told us that tutors now feel “empowered” and are able to focus on emphasising a student’s academic suitability and skills when writing references.

Having used OSCAR, our online platform that provides guidance on how to write an outstanding personal statement and structures the personal statement writing process for students, Teresa’s found that this year’s UCAS applications had “the best personal statements [the school] has ever sent off”, with students having to complete fewer drafts.

Some students at Brimsham have also been paired up with one of our Progression Specialists, who provides each of them with a course of one-to-one mentoring sessions aimed at helping them choose the best approach to HE and providing support with the application process. After those sessions parents have been “hugely positive” in their feedback.

Over the next year, Teresa plans to champion a whole-school approach to HE progression, focusing on working with students before they start Year 12.

We’re really looking forward to working with Teresa to see how those improvements make a difference to the students who are about to start their exams this year.