Travel Diary: Ideas Lab, London

Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, reflects on a stimulating day’s discussion at the first of our Ideas Labs, held among the glorious surroundings of the Royal Veterinary College in London.


For anyone unfamiliar with the Royal Veterinary College’s building, nestled between Camden and Euston, you are in for a treat. It’s a beautiful building, packed with history, not to mention skeletons of elephants, ostriches, sloths and some live ponies and sheep. It’s a veritable treasure trove, yet with some of the most sensitive recent renovations it’s clear you are in a modern, global institution.

RVC was the host of our first Ideas Lab today, a session for WP practitioners from around the country to come together to celebrate, reflect and discuss the work they are doing with schools.

After more than 20 years of partnership working between HEIs and schools/colleges, it’s clear that there are many effective, successful approaches to widening participation. In fact, last year’s NCOP report recognised many of these successes, not least the 1,200 schools across the country engaged in activities.

It also noted that ‘bespoke programmes’ were particularly effective at engaging schools and colleges, but that there were challenges in implementing them.

So the idea behind today’s Ideas Lab was simple: make time and space for people involved in these activities to reflect on recent initiatives, share successes and the thinking behind them, and identify ways to ensure sustainability. As we all receive public funds to run most of our activities, we believe it’s important to share.


We looked at student events, teacher CPD and how to create a sustainable offering. For each session we demonstrated one of our own activities and asked for critique: what did people like, what could be improved.

We considered what the guiding principles should be for impactful student activities and outstanding teacher CPD, and we’ll use the all the feedback to create a new ‘Progression Roadmap’ tool for WP practitioners, which we’ll share once we’ve finished our tour of the country.

It’s a real treat, and a rare privilege, to have the time and space to come together to talk, interact, share, and try to understand the schools, students and families we want to serve. Absolutely everybody said they found the day useful, and their highlights were as varied as the attendees themselves.

Leaving the elephant skeletons behind in one of London’s smaller HE gems, our guests, a varied mix of representatives from University WP departments, NCOPs and FE colleges from around the south of England, have hopefully made some new contacts, reflected on their own work and shared some good practice, and learned about how to better communicate their offer to schools.

We’re running two more Ideas Labs in early April, in Manchester on 1st April and Bristol on 2nd April. A few tickets remain - see our Ideas Labs page for more information and how to book.

A day in the life of a Progression Specialist


Sarah Baylis is one of our team of Progression Specialists, working in schools on our Access Champions programme to provide students with advice and guidance on options and approaches to Higher Education. Here she talks us through her day mentoring students at a school on the Isle of Wight.

There’s just time to grab a quick coffee before jumping aboard the Red Jet this morning. It’s another beautiful day and this 25-minute sailing across the Solent is fast becoming my favourite commute. Once on the other side it’s a brisk walk, uphill, to my island school. I sign in at reception and head to my office for the day. I have half an hour to get my breath back and prepare for a day of mentoring sessions with students I’ve been working with for the past few months as part of our Access Champions programme, which we’re running on the island in partnership with the Southern Universities Network.

My first session is with a student who wants to study economics at university and, ironically, the focus is on finance. We discuss tuition fees and maintenance loans and I introduce her to a calculator tool so she can go home and work out how much she may be eligible for with her family. We also cover average student expenditure so she can work out roughly what additional funds may be needed. It’s not much of a surprise to find that my student is fully engaged with the session, considering her interest in maths and finance. We finish by looking at some of the universities that she is interested in and discussing what they have to offer her. This student is predicted high grades and has a good work ethic so has a good range of options.

My next session starts with a discussion about nothing at all HE related as my student is a massive Saints fan and we have a lot to catch up with since our last session, including remaining in the Premier League! The informal chat helps to build relationships with the students and puts them more at ease to ask questions that they might otherwise feel reluctant or awkward to ask. This student needs help to weigh up his options. He has a real love of life and many varied pathways to take. We begin work on a comparison grid to help him get some clarity.

My remaining sessions involve looking at dentistry courses with one student and apprenticeships with another. It’s interesting to compare how students feel about ‘leaving the island’. Some will only consider south coast options, so that they know they can get home for the weekend if they feel they need to. Others can’t wait to get away and feel it is their chance to fly. Looking for apprenticeships on the island can be a challenge and sadly reduces options for those who wish to stay and do not want to go on to Higher Education.

Before leaving I have an additional session with a student in Year 13 who has suddenly decided he’d like to go to university after all and is seeking some advice. I also have a brief chat with the school’s Access Champion [the member of staff we work with to help improve the school’s approach to HE applications] to finalise details for a parents’ information evening that we are running together after half term. Finally, I send brief messages and emails to the parents of the students I have seen today. Then I pack up my laptop and resources and head off to catch the ferry back to Southampton. As usual, this ends up being a bit of a speed walk, but thankfully it’s downhill this time!

The crossing home gives me time for reflection; to think about how to move things forward in the next session or ponder alternative pathways for those not following a straightforward route into Higher Education. Many rarely travel across the water, so to consider moving to the mainland for at least the next three years can seem especially daunting. But staying on the island and finding good career prospects is also challenging. Living on an island can make access to the events and information needed to make these decisions even more difficult, and costly when you factor in ferry travel. As I travel back my phone buzzes with a response from one of the parents: a lovely message thanking me for my support for her daughter and saying the sessions have opened up a dialogue in their household that she feels would never have happened otherwise. It’s good to know that the sessions are helping and information is making a difference!

Travel diary: Derby


Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, writes about our Access Champions training day in Derby last week and how we help schools understand the changes they need to make to improve access to university..

At 5:45am my alarm goes off. This is a theme in delivery season: early starts and early trains at various London terminals. I have to force myself focus on which where I’m going and which station today’s train leaves from. Nearly all of the team has been caught out at some point by going to the wrong station.  It’s Derby today, where we’re training teachers from schools and colleges in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that are part of our Access Champions programme. 

Two things motivate me to get out of bed this particular morning: I’ll get breakfast on the train, and the University of Derby had great catering last time, worthy of an early start.

I jump in the shower and run through the day’s training in my head. I think of a couple of last minute, but important, changes to talk over with my colleague Sam, and make a note of these before I leave the house.


I meet Sam at St Pancras. I spy a shiny new Nepresso machine and make a joke to the guy working there about it. He says it’s been very popular. I’ll say, it beats the urn coffee.

We arrive in Derby, grab a yellow taxi to the university and get shown the room at the university to set up. A notice tells us that the previous day this room was used for muscular skeletal shoulder ultrasound training. It still amazes me how many different topics are taught in university. 

We’ve been working in this region since May, trying to help state schools make changes to their systems that will improve university progression. We do this by training up a key member of staff, normally a head of sixth form, as an ‘Access Champion’ who champions university access in their school or college. Research, training, and a set of benchmarks that can help school improve their provision, are some of the tools in our kit. But great delivery, enthusiasm and good relationships are just as important, so we work to get the know the teachers and their schools really well. 

There are two new schools attending today so I think about how I can enthuse them about the programme. I really needn’t have worried, as soon as our returning Access Champions arrive they start sharing their successes and do that job for me:

  • “We have had a phenomenal year of applications that we can only attribute to being part of this programme”
  • “Overall the quality of our applications has been much higher”
  • “Nottingham University got in touch to say that one of our nursing applicants had the best personal statements they had ever seen”
  • “We have had our first Oxbridge offer in over 20 years”
  • “Students are much more aware for the need to attend outreach opportunities and we have been sending them on so many different courses.”
  • “Our references were much better.”

There are challenges, of course. Many sixth forms are struggling: declining numbers, unconditional offers from universities that make it hard to motivate students to stay on target, and finding ways to inspire underachieving boys seem to be an issue across all income brackets.  Plus, there are programme issues that I need to hear and act on. 

Our Access Champions have two main objectives for today’s training: analysing university destinations data, and benchmarking their school’s overall provision for HE guidance.

Analysing destinations data is really interesting for the Access Champions. We want them to analyse and understand the progression of their students, by POLAR, FSM, gender, ethnicity and any other groups where outcomes might differ. We also encourage them to think about comparing this with intentions data and UCAS offer data: which courses are popular, which courses are students having successes in? Are there any courses or institutions where they struggle to get offers? Schools often look at this data on an individual basis, but not in detail over a whole cohort or over successive years.  In doing this basic analysis, one school found that students never got in for midwifery at their local university. This prompted a call to the university to explore possible reasons why, revealing that the course is heavily oversubscribed, students often have to apply several years in a row to get in, and they take many mature students. Sixth form applicants, it seems, are statistically better off applying elsewhere. These nuggets of insight are completely invaluable, and a simple change can make a massive difference to students.

We introduced the Access Champions to our new Causeway Benchmarks, which can be used to assess their school’s provision of HE guidance. For each Benchmark, the Access Champions grade their current provision as Bronze, Silver or Gold, then write a development plan for working towards the next level. Our plan is then to support the schools and colleges in the second phase of the programme.

As I clamber on the train home after a long but rewarding day it’s clear that our Access Champions have already made a lot of progress, but there are still things to do to embed this in to their school systems. We’ll be back again soon to see how they’re getting on. Our ultimate goal is that when our support ends there’s a legacy within the schools and colleges that will help look out for groups of students who may being left behind for years to come.