How to achieve high university progression rates

Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in East London is a large comprehensive sixth form college serving one of England’s most socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Most of our advanced level students start with below average prior achievement.

Yet we have university progression rates well above the national average. The vast majority of our second year advanced students apply (9 out of 10) and the vast majority of applicants progress.

767 NewVIc students progressed to university in 2013, this included 99% of all A-level applicants and amounted to a 91% progression rate for applicants overall; including vocational applicants.

Russell Group progression, which is historically low in East London, is improving rapidly. 60 students progressed to Russell group institutions in 2013, which was up from 42 the previous year. This included 13% of all A-level applicants.

All the signs are that 2014 will be another record year and that Russell group numbers will increase further; with 121 students having firmly accepted an offer from a Russell group university compared to 107 last year.

How do we achieve this?

  1. First of all we have the advantage of a very aspirational community. Although many of our students come from families with little history of going to university there is a strong commitment to education and a strong drive to want to benefit from what it has to offer; not least economically. So in general our task is not one of raising aspirations but of realising them
  2. We provide continuous, up-to-date, information, advice and guidance to students from the first time we meet them as applicants to after they have left us. This is embedded in our tutorial programme. We have well-informed dedicated staff such as specialist tutors, careers advisors and senior tutors whose aim is to help students understand their options and make strong, realistic applications. The fact that we meet the demanding ‘Matrix’ standard confirms the high quality and objectivity of our work.
  3. Our honours programme and specialist pathways, for example the medicine pathway, allow us to focus on the specific needs of those students who are keen to apply for the most selective courses and universities and who need to prepare for essential entry tests such as UKCAT, BMAT, LNAT etc.
  4. We have nurtured strong partnerships with a range of universities, including Oxbridge colleges, and these help us to provide a range of academic experiences both in and out of college; lectures, seminars, visits etc. The various strands of our Liberal Arts lecture programme are curated and delivered by academics from institutions such as University College London (UCL), SOAS and Wadham College Oxford. The Wad-ham project develops university level analytical skills, our work with Queen Mary University of London on students’ critical skills is likely to influence the way we teach across the college and the Generating Genius group at UCL are able to engage in cutting edge scientific research.
  5. We foster a mentoring culture throughout the college. Many of our students are peer mentors, some work with younger students in school and we employ a team of former students as academic mentors and regularly welcome in our alumni, as well as mentors from HE and business.

We still face many challenges, for example:

  • Ensuring that our strongest applicants are able to demonstrate their potential in challenging interview settings and to meet additional demanding selection criteria
  • Achieving a critical mass of students progressing to Oxbridge so that this is no longer such an ‘extraordinary’ journey
  • Doing more to understand the factors which lead to retention and success in HE once students have progressed

The Linking London partnership is a good example of colleges and universities coming together to share the understanding of all the issues around transition to HE and what the factors are which contribute to student success.

There are also forces which can work against good practice. Greater competition for sixth form places as a result of the proliferation of new providers means that colleges and sixth forms tend to keep any good links or projects they have with universities to themselves. These are often used as part of institutional marketing rather than being shared. This can make life harder for the universities who are trying to engage. Perhaps we need to create new ‘AimHigher’-like collaborative initiatives which encourage sixth forms to share their links in a efficient way which can benefit all students, wherever they study.

In a recession, where jobs are scarce and higher and further education become more stratified and marketised, the stakes have been raised. Young people’s choice of course and university feels more critical as they have more to lose. We have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing our best to prepare young people for the transition to HE and to help them navigate successfully through the next phase of their education.

This is a slightly extended version of a presentation made at the Sunday Times Festival of Education on 20th June 2014 as part of the Further Education strand organised by the Association of Colleges (AoC).

See also:

Colleges are real engines of social mobility

London college’s promoting social mobility


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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