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Bringing education and learning opportunities to groups underrepresented in higher education

Laura Bradnam, Senior Access Officer for the Adult and Community strand of Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement department, shares details of the new programme that the team have been working on.  

People in a classroom taking in a presentation by a workshop leader


As the Adult and Community strand of
Access and Engagement, we work with grassroots groups, voluntary organisations and statutory services to deliver learning in community settings and provide advice and guidance which supports resident priorities and local needs. It is part of the department’s aim to bring education and learning opportunities to groups underrepresented in higher education.  

The Pathways programme is a new pilot that we’ve developed in collaboration with the Mary Ward Centre, and funded by Uni Connect. The programme is a holistic, strengths-based workshop series, which aims to increase participants self-awareness, find their energising skills and action plan their next steps into education, work or volunteering. What’s special about the Pathways Programme is that it challenges the ‘deficit discourses’ that tend to dominate the employability sector, which often responsiblise an individual for things like a ‘lack of confidence’ or being ‘low skilled’. The programme we have developed considers the whole person and their life experience when figuring out their skills, strengths and next steps. 

Approach
Working with the career coach from Mary Ward ensured activities were interactive and created a safe and supportive space, starting from where people were. Sessions are structured, but with room to explore the needs of each attendee, and build a pathway to sustainable options for volunteering, training and learning opportunities. A certificate of participation is awarded on the day. Community partners advised that this may be one of the first opportunities participants have to be recognised in such a way, so it can be a special moment. 

Two people working through a sheet of paper with prompts and images on it.

Which element are you? Self-reflection activity. 

Participants lives are a rich tapestry, woven from threads connecting caring responsibilities, spirituality and faith, different languages and skills, and being active their local community. These provided valuable sources of inspiration and lived experience. In recognition of this, it was important that the workshops were a whole day – having a bigger chunk of time is necessary to give guests space to think outside of the everyday, and work in a way which cultivated the values outlined above. We wanted to challenge the idea that these aspects of people’s lives are only a barrier – harnessing the Birkbeck ethos that this is valuable experience and life cannot be judged by single exam marks. 

A table covered in small pieces of card with various 'strengths' written on them and a hand sorting through them.

Sorting through strengths cards. 

Part of this approach means we physically go to the participants – for example we did an extra session at Skills Enterprise, tailoring the workshop to fit in with the centre’s activities and making sure it was accessible. All resources were designed for a range of needs including supporting worksheets for those at the earlier stages of learning English; different methods to share ideas for those new to a classroom environment (from pair share to online quizzes); and enough staff so the coach could lead the session and 1-to-1 support available for those who needed it. We are fortunate to have members of the team who are trained in various facilitation techniques, including making spaces safe for people who have special educational needs, which helped elevate the offering of the workshops. 

Participant Feedback
“I thought the exercises in the session were good. They really made me think about myself and what I would like to do for work and opened me up to studying again.”

“This is an eye opener on steps to take to achieve my set goal as well as identifying my strengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses and how to gradually drive my weaknesses into learned behaviour. The workshop is really impressive and time valued.”

A group of people sat in a class room watching someone lead a workshop

Participants at Skills Enterprise in Newham. 

Future
This pilot is only the beginning! Due to the success and positive feedback received, we are continuing to run this programme funded by Mary Ward Centre. The next iteration of the programme will be in January 2023 at Kentish Town Community Centre, and May 2023 with community partners in Newham.  

If you’re interested in getting involved with Access and Engagement’s work in the community, email the team via getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.   

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