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New Insights on WP: Bristol scholars

  • 22 August 2017
  • By Judith Squires

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since last week, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the sixth in the series, features the chapter written by Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students) at the University of Bristol, on Bristol scholars.

Bristol Scholars

Judith Squires

The Bristol Scholars scheme is a radical new approach to widening access to universities. The scheme moves away from the traditional focus on grades, and instead looks at the student’s potential as assessed by their teachers, taking into account any form of educational disadvantage. The scheme is the first of its kind in the UK, and was launched in December 2016 by the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening.


Bristol is a city of contrasts. It has affluent neighbourhoods that contain the highest proportion of PhDs in the country, but it also has 42 city areas that are among the most deprived in the UK. The experience of school-level education varies significantly across the city with the proportion of pupils passing their GCSEs ranging from 32 per cent to 90 per cent, and the proportion progressing to university from 5 per cent to 83 per cent. One area has the second lowest proportion of students progressing to university in the country.

The University of Bristol is situated in the city centre, and benefits from a productive and mutually-beneficial relationship with the city. In the past, however, we have recruited relatively few students from the local area. Our new Bristol Scholars scheme was driven both by a desire to make a step change in our widening participation activities and also to make a clear commitment to working closely with the city.

The scheme emerged from discussions in the Learning City group, which brings together City Council leaders and local education providers to develop a co-ordinated approach to education in order to enhance the learning outcomes of local people. The Learning City approach gives us an opportunity to identify key challenges in the city and develop initiatives to address them. Early conversations about ways to raise attainment of all students in the city focused on trying to spot talent and to evaluate students who could really thrive at university based on their potential and trajectory, rather than performance in exams and attainment. This gave rise to the Bristol Scholars programme, allowing local students to gain access not simply by predicted grades, but for their proven demonstration for potential despite personal and educational challenges.

How it works

Through the scheme, headteachers are asked to identify students who they believe have the potential to succeed at the University of Bristol, but whose grades are unlikely, for a range of reasons, to meet our standard entry requirements. This may be, for example, because their education has been interrupted through a period of illness or a family bereavement, or because they meet a range of widening participation criteria such as being first in their family to attend university, receiving Free School Meals or being a young carer. The scheme is open to all of Bristol’s 25 schools or colleges with post-16 provision. Each school or college can nominate up to five Year 12 students.

In a move to establish joint working across the city’s educational providers, we worked with a group of senior teachers from local schools and colleges to devise the details of the scheme and agree the selection criteria. With advice from teachers, it was agreed from the outset that this is not an unconditional offer scheme; instead, tailored offers will be made up to four grades below our standard offer. All courses are available to Bristol Scholars, including popular professional programmes such as Medicine and Dentistry. The headteacher is asked to submit a statement with the student’s application, explaining why the student’s potential is not reflected in their predicted grades, along with details of challenges they have overcome.

Students are recruited to the scheme in the spring of Year 12 for entry in September the following year. Engaging with the students for 18-months in the run up to their A-Level exams and enrolment at the University allows them to gain familiarity with the institution, develop close networks as a cohort, receive additional academic tuition and complete all aspects of the outreach programme.

Once on their chosen programme of study, we ensure the students have every chance of success. Academic and pastoral mentoring is provided and we administer support in the form of peer mentors, financial aid and skills sessions to ensure a seamless integration into university life. We aim to develop a cohort effect, where students work and socialise together so they do not feel isolated if, for example, they should continue to live at home. Knowing each other before they start will make the transition that little bit easier.

To facilitate success and growth, the University is working closely with parents, teachers and students at post-16 institutions. Enabling aspiration to a University of Bristol education is key to the scheme’s success. This applies to the parents and teachers as much as to the students.

The 2017 pilot cohort

For the initial 2017 pilot, we received applications from 19 of the 25 eligible schools in Bristol. A panel of academic and recruitment professionals reviewed all applications to ensure they met the criteria set:

  • 76 per cent of those who have been made offers are the first in their family to progress to higher education;
  • 57 per cent are entitled to the post-16 bursary;
  • 40 per cent are part of the Free School Meals cohort; and
  • 7 per cent are young carers.

Many of the Bristol Scholars meet multiple widening participation criteria. The pilot cohort are a varied, talented and engaging group – ingredients of brilliant students. They will bring a real diversity of experience and perspective to enrich our University.

Offers have been made to students on a wide range of programmes, including Medicine, Veterinary Science, Mathematics, Law, Modern Languages and Engineering. We work closely with academics in schools to ensure that the reduced offer is at the appropriate level and to make certain that the support provided once the students progress on to our programmes is as effective as possible.

Feedback from the first cohort of Bristol Scholars suggests that the majority will opt to move into our residences rather than stay at home. We are encouraging this, where appropriate, given evidence that live-at-home students tend to have worse outcomes nationally.

Lessons learnt

This is an innovative scheme and we will measure progress closely to evaluate its impact. Initial experiences highlight two distinctive features.

Firstly, the decision to include both independent and state schools in the scheme has proved to be controversial. Much of the debate overlooks the fact that school type is not the only measure of disadvantage, and that students attending independent schools can also, for example, suffer an interrupted education, be young carers or meet other widening participation criteria. The debate also failed to recognise we have other initiatives to address the current under-representation of students from state schools in our student population: our new, national two-grade contextual offer for students from low-performing state schools is designed to address this challenge.

Secondly, working closely with schools combined with the local focus of this innovative new scheme proved to be crucial in allowing us to develop a more rounded approach to widening participation. Identifying the students who have the potential to thrive in our educational environment, but whose exam performance does not reflect this potential, requires detailed knowledge of the students. The scheme also requires significant trust between our University and Bristol’s schools. It is testament to the strength of this model that schools within the region are already keen to see the scheme extended to include more schools. We will be reviewing this option once we have experienced a full cycle of the scheme. But it is important to keep the scheme local as it requires a close working partnership with schools. The relations of trust and understanding required to identify the right students and to ensure they are supported effectively would be hard to sustain at a national level.

The Bristol Scholars scheme developed organically out of conversations with educational leaders within the city. It works for Bristol, and we hope other universities might adopt a similar model. We recommend universities explore new approaches to widening participation in discussion with their local schools to establish the specific needs of the local area, and then work together to produce innovative solutions that address these specific needs. This represents a second step change in thinking about widening participation that takes us beyond national one-size-fits-all approaches and underlines the value of local partnerships. There has never been a better time for showing that all UK universities are rooted in their local communities.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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