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Photograph: by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

Engaging the ‘squeezed middle’

When visiting sixth forms and colleges as a schools liaison professional to talk to students one on one, there’s always someone missing from the cohort of potential undergraduates that come to see me of their own accord.

It’s the average performer; the keen but shy, ambitious but disillusioned student. Perhaps put off by mum and dad, the fees, or the whole university experience, (which can be intimidating and daunting).

The transition up to sixth form or college from secondary school highlights the autonomy and choice that students come to experience at a post-16 year old level. They don’t have to come and speak to me about their choices, they don’t even have to show me their personal statement to comment on, but they can benefit massively from the advice.

There’s no sense in forcing students to speak up about their future plans and to think about university. There’s also a risk that they can be missed out completely or discounted due to their lack of aspirations.

This group of students will hopefully find their feet eventually, and will often go on to thrive at university or in their chosen career.

But how can you ensure that they do reach their full potential?

How can you get them a bit more engaged now so that you can support them throughout their journey?

I was one of those students myself. Shy and quiet, average predicted grades, my parents didn’t know anything about Higher Education, and I was often in the shadow of a clever, studious older sibling who studied at a top university.

I had a glimmer of hope though – I wanted to achieve. I wanted to go to university, but I just needed a little more inspiration than others.

Give your students equal time and advice

I remember at school when the top students would go to meetings about their applications, to get advice on writing their personal statements and practice mock university interviews with their teachers.

While schools now take a much more inclusive approach, it is still too easy to focus on those who are aiming for the top to ensure they get there, or those dwindling altogether and dangerously close to dropping out. There is a ‘squeezed middle’ where average students sit.

This group is where any glimmer of hope to attend university can be turned into full blown ambition with the help of a good teacher or careers adviser.

Increase your focus on HE – make it inspirational

Encourage tutor groups, registration time and assembly time to think more about their future choices. This can incorporate students applying to university and those who aren’t.

Set up activities, like future mapping, where students think about which skills and experience they already have and what they need to work on. Match students in pairs depending on their choices and kick start discussions, such as ‘the benefits of a campus university’ or ‘a study year abroad’.

Arrange for professionals to visit and talk about their jobs; how they got to where they are now. This is a great approach for students seeking to go straight into work, but also to show potential university students where they could be after their degree.

Highlight the benefits of university to students. Graduate earnings are around £150,000 more over the course of their lifetime compared to those who did not pursue study. Simply show your students a range of job adverts. Most ‘well-paid’ jobs require a university degree regardless of the subject.

Go one step further and organise a Schools Liaison Officer or Higher Education Adviser from a university to personally visit and highlight the benefits for your students through talks and interactive workshops. These professionals visit hundreds of schools and can communicate with your students in an engaging and, most importantly, inspirational style.

Universities can also send their Student Ambassadors to speak to your students, facilitate workshops, or just have a casual chat about their desired course. If you are in touch with any of your ex-students who have gone on to university, you can even ask them to come back and do a short talk on their journey – a potential role model to any one of your students.

Visit a university

At age sixteen I had never visited a university. The few Open Days I did eventually attend were a disaster, as I didn’t embrace them nor did I have any enthusiasm to. But it’s quite easy to help your students avoid a similar scenario.

Most universities actually host a free campus visit just for your school, or they will invite you to a wider event on campus. Experienced schools liaison officers and academics will speak to your students at their level and current undergraduate students at the institution will give tours of the campus and accommodation.

A visit is the perfect opportunity for your students to get a head start on looking at universities, find out about student life and start to imagine themselves as a university student.

Constraints on time and money can mean that these available activities don’t always happen. But what’s most important is identifying disillusioned students in the first instance. Hopefully doing so will be the first of many steps to helping students of the ‘squeezed middle’ realise their potential and, if it is the right path for them, apply to university.

Posted by Hannah Robinson on Tue, 31 Jan 2017



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Hannah is an Outreach Officer at the University of East Anglia, working with Norfolk schools to increase the aspirations and attainment of young people while dispelling myths about HE. She joined the Recruitment and Outreach team in 2012 after completing her degree in Media Studies and working in Marketing and Communications for the Student Union. Hannah organises educational outreach events on campus, leads on strategy for secondary schools, working particularly close with schools in West Norfolk.

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