Six years ago, the Principal of Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) launched a bold experiment.
The initiative was inspired by growing evidence that the earlier children were engaged in developing basic life skills such as reading and writing, the better their educational outcomes and life opportunities. So, GCU funded a project that created closer links between the university and nursery, primary and secondary education. Importantly, it also worked with parents.
In its pilot phase, The Caledonian Club worked with one nursery, primary and secondary school in communities near GCU's city centre campus. The club has become the leading project in a network of widening participation and community engagement initiatives at the university, working with more than 8700 young people and 2600 parents and operating in Glasgow, London and, soon, New York.
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The club begins its work with children in pre-school nursery classes, introducing them to a fictional character called Molly who helps them understand their journey through the various school stages. By sixth year, pupils have visited the GCU campus many times, have thought about their potential careers, and are comfortable with the atmosphere and expectations of a higher education institution.
Why start so young? Scotland is recognised for its first-class universities but the sector is often criticised for failing to do enough to encourage potential students from all backgrounds to attend university. GCU's track record in this area is excellent. Some 96 per cent of its students come from state schools, compared with 88 per cent for the Scottish sector; 34 per cent of undergraduate students are from a disadvantaged background, compared with a Scottish average of 27 per cent; and 20 per cent of Scottish entrants come from the lowest fifth of multiple deprivation, compared with a sector average of 13 per cent.
There is scope to improve. The university has invested £1.5 million in the club's mission to develop life skills and raise aspirations for positive destinations, not just to GCU but to higher education in general. That is why the club works closely with parents, reinforcing the opportunities higher education can bring.
Early research by GCU's Professor Caroline Parker suggested that the club has had a profound impact on young people. Participation significantly improved confidence in communication, team skills, attitude towards schoolwork and belief in the ability to enter higher education in secondary school pupils. It also found a marked improvement in the number of pupils who felt able to make informed choices about their future.
A second, year-long research project is underway. Dr Alison Hennessy is using innovative methods to further analyse the club. She is comparing a selection of schools and nurseries engaging with the club with a control group that are not. She uses pictures of different professions to discover what young children in nursery and primary schools understand about opportunities open to them. The findings are due in September.
Students who attended club schools, study at GCU and now work as mentors have helped in the most disadvantaged communities in Glasgow and London.
GCU also works closely with colleges to make the transition to university as seamless as possible and, after receiving £1million from the Scottish Funding Council, GCU opened the Advanced Higher Hub in partnership with Glasgow City Council. It is a place for sixth-year students from 18 Glasgow schools to study Advanced Higher subjects they would otherwise miss out on.
These projects highlight a partnership approach that opens the maximum number of opportunities to pupils, students and families in the many communities where the university works. As Anne O'Grady, headteacher of Cloan Nursery in Drumchapel, put it: "For the nursery there is no downside. It is a real partnership with a shared vision of what we are trying to achieve."