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Western Mail reviews The Brilliant Club’s work raising aspirations in Wales

Brilliant work helps get pupils to university

An award-winning education charity is working with hundreds of Welsh pupils. Here Greg Scannell, from The Brilliant Club, explains how its Scholars Programme raises aspirations.

The Brilliant Club exists to increase the number of students from underrepresented
backgrounds progressing to highly-selective universities. This is achieved by mobilising the PhD community to share its academic expertise with non-selective state schools.

The Brilliant Club has developed relationships with over 550 schools across the UK to help students develop the skills, knowledge and ambition to secure a place at the top universities.

This year we have worked with over 10,000 students through our Scholars Programme, which places post-graduate researchers in schools as tutors for students in their specialist subject.

Since launching in Wales in autumn 2016, PhD and postdoctoral tutors have worked with five primary schools, 17 secondary schools and two FE colleges. A total of 264 students aged from 10 to 17 have undertaken academically challenging and rewarding programmes with them.

The programmes are targeted. Last year 44% of students were eligible for free school meals and in Wales, 49% of students participating came from the 40% of UK postcodes with lowest participation in higher education.

The first tutorial that students attend takes place in a highly-selective university, with the day
also comprising opportunities to meet current undergraduates, have a campus tour and gain
information, advice and guidance on higher education from the host university’s widening
participation team.

A further six tutorials that take place in the student’s school or college, and a “graduation ceremony”.

Students enrolled on the programme work with a researcher on a university-style module, pitched at a key stage above their chronological age and key stage. In small tutorial groups, and through an extended written final assignment marked according to university gradings, there is a focus on critical thinking
skills, argument construction and independent research.

In Wales, The Brilliant Club works in partnership with Cardiff University, running both launch and graduation events on campus as well as recruiting tutors from their post-graduate researcher community.

Students from Wales have also had the opportunity to visitother universities such as Oxford, Bristol, Warwick and Exeter.

The charity has also recruited PhD researchers from Swansea, Cardiff Metropolitan, Aberystwyth
and Wrexham Glyndŵr universities to work with students in Wales.

The tutors’ areas of research range across the academic disciplines of arts, humanities, social sciences and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and they are paid £500 per placement that they undertake.

An independent evaluation by UCAS, published in 2017, found that students who complete The
Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme are “significantly more likely” to progress to a highly-selective
university than a control group of students with matched characteristics.

The UCAS study analysed the destination data from school leavers who completed The Scholars Programme in 2015,which showed 57% progressed to a highly-selective university, compared to the UK average of one in five state school students.

In Wales, 64% of all students achieved a first or 2.1 in their final assignment, which is indicative
of outstanding achievement at a key stage above their own, with pupils eligible for free school meals matching the achievement of their more advantaged peers.

Further to this, students are asked to complete a survey relating to their confidence and attitudes
towards university both before and after completing the programme in which 83% of Welsh students agreed or strongly agreed that they “… are capable of studying at a highly-selective university” after
participating.

Ethan Peters, a Year 12 student at Coleg Sir Gâr participated in the programme last autumn working with Dr Lucy Hopkins on a course entitled “The importance of tissue culture in cancer research”. He said: “The Brilliant Club was an excellent opportunity. It gave me an insight into how to complete university-style assignments as well as teaching me invaluable researching and referencing skills.

“I really enjoyed learning about our chosen topic from an expert in the field, it even helped me with my college studies.

“We then graduated at the end of our project at Bristol University which was a wonderful experience
and has really inspired me to do the best I can in my A-levels.”

Vanessa Cashmore, head of A-level at the college said: “Our more able and talented students have benefited hugely by undertaking an academic scholarship programme.

“They have not only acquired knowledge but also developed confidence and academic skills. Dr Hopkins was an enthusiastic and engaging tutor who offered an insight into the importance of tissue culture. The knowledge our students gained was directly relevant to their future careers as doctors, dentists and vets.”

“A a former teacher, I know myself that is really important that every student has the opportunity to be taught by people with amazing subject expertise and passion for their discipline and that is exactly
what our tutors offer.

“It should be a student’s entitlement; it should be the most normal thing in the world that a PhD or post-doctoral researcher goes in to our secondary schools as a role model who can inspire students and prepare them for what university is really about.”

Education expert Dr PhilipDixon has also endorsed the Brilliant Club saying: “It brings together some of the best young minds in academia today with some of our brightest pupils. The programme is challenging but rewarding for the youngsters involved.

“It’s easy to complain about the barriers that those from deprived backgrounds face but The Brilliant Club is doing something about it. It is opening doors and opening minds.”

The Brilliant Club also works with the Seren Network; a network of regional hubs designed to support Wales’ brightest sixth formers gain access to leading universities, which was developed following the proposals offormer Welsh secretary Paul Murphy’s 2013 “Oxbridge Ambassador” report.

Working with the Welsh Government, The Brilliant Club organised and facilitated Seren’s national conference which took place last March and was attended by around 700 students and teachers from across Wales.

The event brought together university representatives and researchers from across the UK to provide students from Wales with up-to-date skills, knowledge and guidance to make successful applications to highly-selective universities in the UK and beyond.

■■ Greg Scannell is The Brilliant Club national manager for Wales.

■■ The Brilliant Club was founded by two teachers in a London school in 2012. In 2016-17 its Scholars Programme worked with 10,400 pupils in 550 schools in England, Scotland and Wales.