Reaching for the stars

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David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, gives an example of how schools and universities can work together to encourage students with little or no family background of Higher Education to consider going to university through a project that focuses on the real-life application of astronomy.

Forty years on from the first Apollo moon landing, a new generation of young people are being inspired to reach for the stars thanks to a pioneering astronomy project.

Alexandra Park School in Haringey and the University College London’s (UCL) Physics and Astronomy Department have joined forces to bring astronomy to life and raise higher education aspirations. The project gives Year 11 students the chance to meet a NASA medal winning astronaut and talk to science specialists.

Future plans for the project, based on the success so far, include making the Year 11 astronomy day an annual event, extending the Beyond club for Year 7 and starting a GCSE in astronomy next academic year.

The project supports the government’s Science: So what? So everything campaign, launched this year to make science more accessible.

Beyond highlighting the role higher education plays in space exploration, the project raises achievement in GCSE and A-level science subjects, while promoting general awareness of maths and physical-science courses in further and higher education.  One of the main benefits of the project has been a notable increase in student confidence prior to their exams. This has translated into a significant rise in physics modular exam results and a marked uplift in the number of students interested in going on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses at university. 

At the heart of the project are school visits by one of Europe’s most experienced astronauts, Jean Francois Clervoy from the European Space Agency.  Jean Francois has notched up over 600 hours in orbit onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis and Discovery. He also helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.  He brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise into the classroom, helping students understand complex issues such as the need for the development of advanced life systems to allow humans to live in space.  Through in-depth question and answer sessions and visits to the University of London Observatory - UCL’s teaching observatory at Mill Hill - students develop a practical understanding of the scientific issues involved in astronomy. 

Alexandra Park School’s astronomy project is just one example of the creative methods being employed across the country to inspire young people to consider higher education.  The groundbreaking Aimhigher scheme – jointly funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – funds a range of activities to encourage more young people to consider university.  Through Aimhigher, hundreds of visits and events take place across the UK each year, demonstrating what university is about and showing the wide range of courses available.  It is important to engage students of all ages – from primary school through to sixth form by offering a range of programmes tailored to each age group. 

A particular focus is on targeting students from families where there might little or no history of higher education. These students may be put off going to university through fundamental misunderstandings of what higher education is like.  Aimhigher can help demystify issues such as course funding and making friends at university. The scheme also highlights the vast number of courses on offer and job opportunities available to them as a result of completing a degree.

Aimhigher in action stretches beyond the realms of astronomy.  Getting young people to consider higher education relies on the support of schools to present the idea of university through a series of ongoing, interactive activities. 

For example, Professor Fluffy’s Medical Adventure introduces the idea of higher education to primary school children through various experiments and tasks, including making bouncy balls and fitness testing in a fun environment.  To get more young people to think about studying law at university, the University of Sheffield has partnered with teachers from over 20 schools in South Yorkshire, sending young people to Sheffield’s law courts and setting up visits to Doncaster prison to look at how the criminal justice systems works.  Through this programme, students are able to observe real trials, attend criminology classes and speak to staff and inmates at the prison.

Teachers are key influencers for young people.  I remember from my own experience, being the first in my family to go to university, how important the encouragement and support of my teachers was in building my confidence and helping me to believe that higher education was right for me.  If we wait until children are 18 years old before we try to convince them that, with talent and hard work, they can aspire to go to any institution that suits their needs, then we leave it far too late.

Professor Fluffy, the law and astronomy projects are great examples of Aimhigher in action.  And it is clear that these sorts of initiatives are having a real impact. Figures published in June by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show steady progress in widening participation and further improvements in the numbers of students gaining a qualification.  We now have the largest ever percentage of people attending university from state schools and low participation neighbourhoods. In addition, the report projects that 86 per cent of full time degree starters will leave higher education with a qualification. This is the highest number in ten years.

Aimhigher projects help young people understand the purpose of school and exams.  It is about progression way beyond the school gates, helping them achieve their potential, not just in getting to university, but in obtaining a qualification to stand them in good stead throughout their lives. The astronomy initiative demonstrates that there are benefits for teachers too: if pupils are enthusiastic about the prospect of higher education, they will be more motivated to do well at school, committing to their education and improving their grades. These benefits are cumulative and increase over time.

Some critics have questioned whether it’s right to be encouraging more students to consider higher education when there are less graduate jobs available. I feel very strongly that we should. After all, the recession will not last forever – soon the economy will recover and new jobs demanding high skills levels will be created.  We need to build on all the work that has been done over the past decade to widen access to higher education.

University should not be the preserve of the elite, but of the talented. The role of Aimhigher is to help students see that they should not be intimidated by the prospect of university, but excited by it and the opportunities it will uncover. Aimhigher projects and initiatives offer students a glimpse into some of the careers they could undertake with a university degree, as well as an insight into the thousands of courses on offer at universities across the country.

Aimhigher is about raising aspirations to change the course of people’s lives for the better, giving them more of a chance to realise their life goals.  Through widening participation, we are creating a society where everyone can rise as high as their talents and efforts allow.  It is more important than ever to encourage young people to consider higher education.  We should offer them every opportunity to aim for the stars.

David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

For more information about Aimhigher, please visit www.


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