Higher education: The ROAR Programme

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Photo: iStock

Raising the aspirations of high-ability pupils, especially those who are also disadvantaged, is a key priority. This of course includes fostering university and perhaps Russell Group ambitions. Phil Denton introduces his approach – The ROAR Programme

On a sunny day in late May, when I was in year 11 at school, I travelled down to Oxford University with a group of fellow students.

An English teacher who I had given such a hard time to as a student had organised a debating team, which had made it all the way down to Oxford to compete in the national finals.

I should add at this point that I was not on this team at the time, I simply fancied the day out and it was a free trip!
During that day I was struck by an epiphany, which has subsequently sparked my passion for education, my enthusiasm for my own development, and my unwavering commitment to impart this enlightenment to as many students as possible before it is too late – like it was for me.

As I sat with my English teacher, Ms Pigott, who I always knew had a great deal of belief in me despite my immaturity, we discussed the grandeur of the surroundings of the Oxford University grounds.

The purpose and ambition of the undergraduates who gave us a tour had dazzled me. I was hypnotised by the endless opportunities that this beacon of education opened up. I shared my amazement with my English teacher who sat and listened patiently. I felt like I was looking through a shop window at the desirable items that I could never afford.

The sense of helpless excitement was almost uncomfortable as I wished that I could be a part of this world. It was during this conversation that she uttered the words that have struck a chord ever since.

Just five words that hit me like a train: “You could have come here.”

I looked incredulously at her and let it sink in. I didn’t jump to my feet and immediately begin an educational crusade, but gradually, over the years that have gone by since, it has become somewhat of a mission of mine to ensure that as many students as possible from state schools do not face that same rude awakening.

This has become a pressing issue nationally as well. Ofsted’s report in March 2015 – entitled The Most Able Students – cited the lack of adequate provision to cultivate these pupils’ abilities through teaching and additional opportunities as a key problem, especially at key stage 3. This is especially the case with disadvantaged students within this group.

So now, as an assistant headteacher at St Edmund Arrowsmith RC High School in Wigan, I believe that we have developed a programme to give students belief in their ability. Created from the beginnings of a programme I devised while working at The Grange School in Runcorn (which we called The Russell Group Ready programme), The ROAR Programme will support our high-achieving students.

The ROAR Programme in action

I have been greatly impressed by organisations such as The Brilliant Club, which works to enhance student aspirations through a research-based programme culminating in a graduation ceremony at Oxford University.

However, I wanted something in our school that was broad enough to allow those with exceptional talents, both academic and arts-related, to see what exciting opportunities were within their grasp.

This desire has led to the development of the ROAR programme. ROAR stands for: Russell Group or alternative ready.
As a school we will get our students, their parents, our staff and community to believe in our high-attaining youngsters from year 7. This environment of aspiration and excellence at a young age will then allow for expectations of students, parents and staff to be as high as possible in order to fulfil the very real potential of our students.

The programme itself takes simple steps to engage all key parties in order to create a driving force toward student success.

The first stage is an assembly to students who are introduced to the exciting possibilities of the ROAR programme. They are shown images of the experience that these institutions offer. This is followed by an explanation as to why going to such a place can lead to a fulfilling life beyond.

The concept of growth mindset and the values of hard work and determination are cited as key requisites for such a place to become attainable. The link between the goal and the steps towards it in everyday life are made through various student-friendly analogies. With enthusiasm for such a future embedded, an application process then begins.

Places are limited to just 20 each term to add the element of competition. Students are expected to complete a one-page application form, including a comment from an independent referee.

Furthermore, they are required to write a one-page statement detailing their suitability and interest in such a future. Other key information includes their current level of progress, involvement in extra-curricular activities and other independent involvement in life beyond their studies.

Following the application process, students are informed of the decision. Those who are not successful are given detailed feedback and encouraged to re-apply next term.

To enhance their application, students are encouraged to seek out advice from teachers as to how they can boost their progress and further develop their skills beyond the classroom. Such a process can develop high-achieving students, who become competitive and eager to go even further beyond what is expected of them.

It is this kind of process that can help to tackle the deficit in key stage 3 provision for high-achieving students that was highlighted as a key problem in the aforementioned Ofsted report.

Those students who are successful receive an official letter through the post and details of the parental meeting which is compulsory to attend. The next step with successful applicants is the launch event. This will be held in the new year and will be an occasion for the students involved to dress smartly and attend a presentation with their parents.

In the vast majority of cases it is a myth that parents do not have high aspirations for their children. Research by Professor Becky Francis and others for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in 2011 (entitled Identities and Practices of High Achieving Pupils) pointed to gaps in parental knowledge relating to how best to support their children.

This will not be news to most schools, or parents for that matter. With that in mind, supporting the aspirations of parents and sometimes cultivating aspirations is crucial in forming a team around the child so that they can flourish.

Parental meetings are not condescending, but a coming together of professionals and families to ensure that the children on the ROAR programme get the same message from all of their advocates. Parents leave with the contact details of the ROAR programme organisers so that they can continually ask questions and be regularly kept up-to-date as to their child’s progress.

In school, teachers are made aware of the students who have been selected and those that have not. Those that have not should then be encouraged by their teachers to make advanced progress in order to give themselves the best chance of being successful the second time around.

Those on the programme begin a research-based task centred on a question, normally based around philosophical concepts or a current issue of global or national significance.

For example, one task set out for the students was: “To what extent is the North/South divide a reality in 21st century Britain?”

With one session of input relating to how research can be organised and presented, students are then left with the task for three weeks. During this time they have two other sessions, one based on resilience and the other based on presentation skills.

The programme is completed with an exhibition evening where students present initially to senior prefects in the school and then to their parents that same evening. There is a presentation evening with certificates handed out by the headteacher and a representative from a Russell Group university. For our first cohort, we are delighted to have a representative from the University of Liverpool.

The ROAR programme is evaluated by student questionnaires completed prior to and following the course.
Students on the programme are also tracked throughout the year via the data review process. Postcards are sent home to inform parents of the quantitative and qualitative information we have as to their progress over the course of the year. This will be organised by the ROAR programme coordinator.

As a programme, ROAR is a sign of the school’s intent that our high-attaining students have the environment that is necessary so that they will be ready to aspire to and apply to the best higher educational establishments.

For myself, this personal mission of ensuring that students realise their potential before it is too late will permeate the rest of my career. Now it is time to galvanise colleagues and parents around the country who have a similar belief.

  • Phil Denton is assistant headteacher at St Edmund Arrowsmith RC High School in Wigan.

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