Peter Wright, our Zero Gravity Lead Teacher at Blackpool Sixth Form College, was asked by PiXL to share how Zero Gravity supports highly-talented students from low-opportunity areas through their Excellence Programme.
As the coordinator of Blackpool Sixth’s Excellence Programme for high achieving students, I’m incredibly privileged to closely support many of our students on their journey to elite universities and competitive apprenticeships. One of our core values is ‘Aspiration’ and it’s a key driver in encouraging our students to realise their potential and take risks, especially when applying for the most competitive universities and the life-changing opportunities they can bring.
However, while Blackpool benefits from a reputation for tourism, there are a range of socio-economic issues that, despite various attempts, continue to undermine these aims. Blackpool, like so many other coastal towns, continues to suffer from under-investment and government cuts. Indeed, according to a 2019 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government report, ‘neighbourhoods in Blackpool then account for eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods nationally’ (Ministry of Housing, 2019). Similarly, the English Indices of Deprivation 2019 revealed Blackpool was ranked the most deprived area out of 317 districts and unitary authorities in England, when measured by the average rank. 39.0% of secondary school students in Blackpool are entitled to free school meals (this is the highest of all English unitary authorities) and compares to an average for all English unitary authorities of 18.7%. At Blackpool Sixth, 7.51% of students qualify for an income-assessed bursary, which has the same criteria as the free school meal criteria used by the local authority. The majority of our feeder schools perform well below the national average in terms of their GCSE results.‘ Attainment 8’ measures show the average score for Blackpool was the lowest percentage among the 14 local authorities in the broader Lancashire area. Currently 14.76% of our students receive a bursary (including travel bursary and free meal bursary).
I am always on the lookout for accessible, high-quality and cost effective (preferably free) resources to level the playing field. Zero Gravity immediately appealed to me because of the emphasis on mentoring. The fact that our students can speak regularly to others who have had a similar journey to them is invaluable. Moreover, the programme clearly showcased flexibility in the use of the platform which would suit many of our students who also work outside of their studies to support family finances. I was also impressed with and re-assured by the strong safeguarding and mentor verification that’s in place and the free School Dashboard allows me as a lead teacher to oversee student engagement right from the start.
In addition to leading our Excellence Programme, I still have a large teaching timetable and coordinate a number of local schools in their teaching of classics and Latin. It was, therefore, very important that Zero Gravity would fit in seamlessly into complementing our existing offer. The School Dashboard was very easy to navigate and allowed me to refer a large number of students who I thought would benefit from the Zero Gravity approach.
In order to select appropriate students, I advertised the scheme to our cohort of students with an average GCSE point score of 7.0+. Using a quick Google Form I was able to assess which students fit the criteria, were interested, and would commit to the offer. Once I had registered my interest I was able to use the Zero Gravity resources to deliver a short assembly to interested students to explain the structure and advantages they would gain.
Once students complete their sign up form, they find out if they’re eligible immediately: gaining access to Zero Gravity’s mentors, masterclasses and community space, which combine to tackle the imposter syndrome so many students face when applying for a top university. The masterclasses, which run as live webinars, help to upskill our students on a range of topics, such as the personal statement, leveraging the insights of current admissions tutors (like Dr Matt Williams at Jesus College, Oxford) to give Zero Gravity members the inside scoop on all things UCAS and exams.
There have been a range of positive impacts of Zero Gravity for our students. Firstly, the super-curricular flexibility and masterclasses have allowed students to further explore their subject areas of interest at their own pace and to fit around college work, part-time work, and family commitments. Secondly, the further reinforcement, development and reiteration of oracy skills, such as the need to deploy specialist vocabulary, has been incredibly valuable. Historically, our students have found the interview stage of the Oxbridge application process a challenge. Spending regular time with Zero Gravity mentors perfectly complemented the workshops offered by the college. The large variety of additional webinars, admission test preparation and interview support aided in developing the confidence of our students. Finally, when speaking to students taking part it was clear that the scheme had a positive impact on their mindset in terms of responding to challenges and demystifying the process of applying for elite universities.
Testimonial from Blackpool Sixth Form College student Amy Dunn:
“In my sessions my mentor, James, went over picking the right Cambridge college for me, doing past HAA exam papers, interview prep and personal statement workshops. They were all extremely helpful and he catered each session to what I needed help with at the time. The sessions were very helpful. The exam prep helped me feel confident in the actual exam and I was prepared to deal with questions in the interview that I may have been thrown by if it wasn’t for the interview sessions, in which James asked me his own questions from his Cambridge interview. I got offers from all my universities, including Cambridge.”
Testimonial from Blackpool Sixth Form College student Tabitha Davey:
“We looked at personal statement final checks as well as working through substantial admission prep into the exams for Oxford. It was very useful as I was paired with a mentor who was a psychology student at Oxford, so she knew all about the admissions process. Though I didn’t get an offer to Oxford I still think the help was really useful as it strengthened my personal statement, expanded my revision techniques and gave me clarity over finances at university – this ensured I got my second-choice university. An added bonus was that me and my mentor were able to talk about psychology and the recent findings in journals. I got an offer from Bath, Cardiff, York – I’m not sure about Bristol as I withdrew (didn’t want that university anyway). University of Bath is my firm and York is my insurance. As well as this, my engagement with the platform was recognised as being in the top 5% and I was successfully awarded the Zero Gravity Scholarship. This means I’ll receive £3000 to support me through the costs associated with university. This is incredibly useful as I am from a low-income background and it is unlikely my mum can help towards the cost of studying.”
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