Higher education: How we created a culture of belief

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
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The ROAR programme seeks to raise students’ expectations and aspirations for university study. Phil Denton explains more about how it works and how you can set up something similar in your school

A year 8 form tutor was taking their register one wet Wednesday morning in a Wigan comprehensive high school.

She listened as a group of four students were discussing a topic which startled her. With smiles but firm opinions, the group were debating which Russell Group university was the best resourced for science courses. The students were not from any particular group and they had not been set the task of debating the issue.

The discussion was inspired because of the ROAR programme activity that had taken place the previous afternoon. The ROAR programme is aimed at ambitious, middle to high-attaining students who want to progress to elite universities but often are not sure about the decisions they should be taking or the skills that they will require. ROAR stands for Russell Group or Alternative Ready.

More often than not, the main issue students need to overcome is low academic self-belief and a lack of self-efficacy. What the form room discussion reflects at St Edmund Arrowsmith is that now, students do not just aspire to elite universities, they expect that these institutions are open to them should they wish.

You can create this culture at your school in a cheap, systematic manner that will result in higher expectations among your most able and ambitious students.

What has been involved?

During the last year or so we have seen more than 100 students taking part in the programme. They now have a great understanding of the nature of Russell Group universities and the skills required to succeed there.

In fact, when we look at the data we can see that the students are making more progress than their peers with similar starting points who have not taken part in the programme.

There is much more to the success of the programme though than short-term progress measures. Students who have completed the programme have the confidence to articulate their dreams and ambitions with a developed sense of aspiration which has now indeed become expectation.

The ROAR application process has set this self-assurance off. Students apply formally and the references they gain allow for affirmation from a non-teaching adult who can talk about those all-important qualities of determination, character and humility. Such qualities are not assessed nor do they count towards progress measures. They do, however, allow us all to be successful in a holistic sense through our academic and social development.

The next stage is crucial. Students, upon being successful in their application, receive a formal letter and attend a launch event with their parents. The challenge of the application and the involvement of parents has resulted in a great sense of pride from both students and parents.

We have seen the understanding of the ROAR objectives grow at this event and, even more so, the belief of all concerned that this is an attainable goal.
Research studies from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have suggested that the majority of parents aspire for academic greatness for their students but often are not sure how to support their child effectively. This is especially the case for those classed as disadvantaged.

As such, this launch evening has had great feedback as parents have their belief in their child avowed and a supporting programme and wider provision is outlined to them.

University challenge in year 10

Following this meeting students work toward two outcomes – an essay and an exhibition event. First, they produce a 1,000 word essay based on a contemporary debate. A recent question has been: Mankind is destroying the planet. Discuss.

The input has all been from college tutors, professionals and former Russell Group students who have presented seminar-style sessions. What has been fascinating to see has been the growth of students’ ability to work on complex concepts relating to the content, but also their critical-thinking skills as expressed in extended written pieces.

Initially students find it difficult to begin writing or articulating thoughts which require lateral and imaginative thinking and to which there is no definite answer.

To begin to consider where we take evidence from and which sources should carry more weight will be a great benefit to students immediately in subjects such as history and English but also in later life.

Students have found the input sessions to be enlightening and also exciting in that they show the greater level of independence afforded and expected at college and beyond.

As I write, we are currently reviewing the teaching and learning policy through research carried out by colleagues under various guises. One piece of research focused on former students at local colleges. They enjoyed their time at the school but said they would like to be more prepared for independent study.

They specifically reference the ROAR programme as an initiative which was now supporting this focus on more independent study. So, the evidence of the programme being a success is now coming from former students, progress data and parents.

The submission of the 1,000-word essay is only the start of the assessment. The students have been fascinated by the university-style grading system we use (1st, 2:1, 2:2 etc.). In addition, the comments highlighting their strengths, areas for development and potential has garnered excitement and self-assurance upon receipt at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony follows an exhibition event where students present their learning on stalls through physical illustrations. When parents arrive they are given question prompts and then ask students about their learning in a viva style (viva voce: the oral examination used by many Russell Group universities).

My one wish is that all schools could see the development of the students during this experience. They begin their exhibitions as timid teenagers and end as confident learners who can discuss study styles, theoretical concepts and their own artistic interpretations of their learning.

What is perhaps even more incredible to see are the parents who stand back in awe of their child presenting their learning to a range of parents and visitors.

This again gives both the student and the parent that belief that their student can and will be Russell Group or Alternative Ready by the time they leave, should they continue on this path.

When the programme is complete, the essays are submitted and the learning has been exhibited, our students then go to visit a Russell Group university. This year’s groups will have visited Liverpool, Manchester and Cambridge. The result of this whole process for the year 7 to 10 groups that complete the process is the realisation that nothing is beyond them in an academic sense.

And these days are not simply tourist-style visits, we have witnessed students arriving with a sense of purpose and, that word again, expectation.

Maintaining the ROAR

Once students have finished the programme and been on their university visit, the challenge is to maintain their enthusiasm until the follow up programme the year after.

In order to do this, we have established the ROAR Club. This is a mixed age group club which has a focus topic. The current club programme is involved in an NHS competition to design a promotional poster for a particular job. This leans more towards the “alternative” element of the ROAR acronym.

The strength of this programme lies in the wider involvement of staff and the external speakers. We have had nurses, doctors and other medical professionals in to school to discuss their role and how they got there.

It is most important that the ROAR project does not make students feel constrained to a set future path, more that by making the right decisions they can have a tremendously broad range of opportunities available to them.

The club, like the programme, has sessions which are interactive, engaging and often filled with laughter. The students enjoy the time they spend together and there is a palpable energy among them.

Our next project will be politically and socially focused. Students will be put into groups and given information on a fictional country. They will have to decide on their system of government, political policies, economic policies and other decisions based upon a system of national values. As a result, students will be aware of and have debated issues of national and global importance. This will strengthen their global awareness and prepare them for the lateral thinking they will be required to display in elite university interviews and subsequent studies.

We are not just telling our students what they need to succeed but we are providing the programme in which they can flourish and realise this success.

Create a ROAR movement

If this sounds like something which could help your school harness the potential of high-flyers then the set-up is straight-forward.

You need someone who is inspired by the premise initially and willing to arrange the speakers, rooming and dates etc. You then need buy-in from the senior leadership team so that they appreciate the value of the programme and will support it across the school.

Next, set-up a 10-week programme with a small initial group of around 20 students that will be committed to the project. Last year, I wrote in SecEd about my initial experiences of setting up the ROAR initiative. You may find this article useful (Higher education: The ROAR Programme, SecEd, January 2016: http://bit.ly/2pvOwbK).

Once students have applied and been successful, ensure that a parents’ evening captures their imagination and their support of their students at home.

To make the journey toward an elite university real, they must understand their part in supporting their child beyond the financial element.
The local colleges will provide the input for several sessions based around your key topic question. Finally, the exhibition event is a chance to celebrate the work of all involved with the university trip to look forward to.

Your belief will become their belief and that is a powerful vehicle for systematic and long-term development of your most able and ambitious students.

If you would like any further information or would like to share your practice with us do get in touch. I believe the ROAR programme could be the beginning of a real movement for students in comprehensive schools across the country.


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