Education & Family

How mentors are opening the door to university

Image caption Part of the programme is a four-day trip to Cambridge University

Zainab, a teenager from London's East End, had always wanted to go to university and become the first in her family to do so.

But she says she had not thought of "aiming high".

"I always wanted to go to university but was not sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to study," she said.

"I thought I would study locally and not move out and go to an average university."

But that was before she met mentor Charlotte Gough - a teacher and "big sister" figure - who Zainab says helped her raise her sights.

They were teamed up through a programme which aims to get more young people from poorer homes in to top universities.

The scheme is run by the Teach First charity, which gets top graduates to teach in schools in deprived areas or facing challenging circumstances.

"We went to Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and I started to realise 'Why can't I go to these places? I can aim for the best,'" Zainab said.


Just two years later, the 18-year-old is delighted to be in her first term at the London School of Economics (LSE). She is studying history and thinking about a career in the City.

Zainab met Charlotte every six weeks or so over 18 months to get help in navigating the path from school to university.

"I was the first one in my family and it was quite daunting," she said.

"But Charlotte was amazing, she helped me so much."

The meetings took place in museums and art galleries as well as London coffee shops.

Image caption The scheme strives to help teenagers aim high

Charlotte, who teaches English at Petchey Academy in Hackney, said: "Every other meeting we would go somewhere of cultural interest, such as the British Museum.

"We would spend about half the time focusing on Ucas [university application] and the other half on something cultural."

Charlotte encouraged Zainab to research various courses and universities and gave her tips on how to write her "personal statement" for the application, and even helped her revise.

Charlotte, who is 26 and an English graduate from Birmingham University, wants to stay in teaching - unlike most of the Teach First entrants who commit to work in schools for at least two years and support the charity's work in other ways long-term.

She said mentoring had helped her as a teacher and been a "very positive experience" she would like to repeat.

"I went to a state school which did not give a lot of help when it came to university applications," she said.

Competition for places

"I was lucky to have support at home and my sister had gone but without that help I would not have gone to the university that I did.

"I wanted to give guidance on universities and give others that support. The competition for places is getting harder and harder."

Zainab was on Teach First's Higher Education Access Programme for Schools, known as Heaps.

She was one of 91 teenagers to win a university place this summer after being on the scheme, out of a group of 141.

Teach First says more than half secured places at the UK's top universities including Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and Warwick.

The programme runs at schools in England where there are Teach First teachers and is open to nominated pupils who are eligible for free school meals or whose parents did not go to university.

Pupils from one school are then matched with a Teach First teacher from another.

As well as being mentored, they will go on trips designed to "demystify university life", including a four-day trip to Cambridge University.

On Saturday, the latest group of Heaps pupils - and their parents and teachers - are gathering at a school in London.

'Opening the door'

They will meet their mentors, take part in workshops and hear talks, including one from Oxford University's head of admissions Mike Nicholson.

Individual schools and other charities - notably The Sutton Trust - also run schemes to raise aspirations and help children from poorer homes go to university.

According to The Sutton Trust, 96% of children attending independent schools go on to university, compared with 16% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals.

Among children in general who are not on free school meals, about 40% go to university.

For Zainab, the achievement of getting to a leading university is doubly sweet.

"My parents left school at a young age. They are extremely proud and happy. I have an older brother and two younger siblings and have opened the door to them.

"I saw my younger brother the other day and he said to me, 'If you can do it, so can we.'"

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