Press release

Widening participation in challenging times

Published on 17 March 2021

Over the past year our Access and Participation team has adapted to new ways of working with young people from less privileged backgrounds, precisely the group most likely to be negatively affected by lockdown.

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The ACES and Reach Tayside projects are funded by the Scottish Funding Council and see them encourage high school pupils to consider highly competitive subjects with additional entry steps, such as art, design and architecture (ACES) and medicine, dentistry and law (Reach).

Over the past 12 months, they have continued to help pupils from areas of multiple deprivation achieve their academic and personal ambitions.

Rapid reprogramming

In a typical year, the ACES and Reach Tayside projects would be a programme jam-packed with interactive activities ranging from practical workshops such as surgical skills, life drawing or portfolio prep, to court visits, subject and career insight events, and gallery or museum trips. On top of this, application support sessions are hosted almost weekly – helping pupils with personal statements, interview skills and digital portfolio preparation. These workshops require specialist facilities and materials – so how on earth were team members Amy Stewart, Helen Hardman and Alastair Stark meant to recreate all that online?

The team pride itself on offering a face-to-face, on-campus experience to pupils. Getting prospective applicants into the buildings to give them a sense of what art, medical, dental or law school is really like and to make them believe it’s somewhere they could belong is an important part of widening access. Providing a window into an entirely different experience to the one they have had in school is integral to their work.

But 2020 was far from ordinary, and when the University moved to a WFH set up, the team had to quickly figure out how best to adapt and provide its usual level of support to pupils in the Tayside area. Seeing first-hand the even greater need to support access candidates at this challenging time, the top priority was moving to online delivery at the earliest possible point.

Very early on in the pandemic, Helen met (virtually, of course) with Jess, her ACES Edinburgh colleague, to discuss how the projects might adapt as there was no template in place for hands-on creative projects. Facing the daunting prospect of setting up an online programme from scratch, they decided to work together and the #collaboraces project, a ten-week online creative offering, was born. Working together meant they could split the responsibility and workload in order to try more new things. For example, life drawing took place alongside a new creative project each week, with dedicated feedback times provided so the students could help shape the programme’s development.

A combination of Instagram and Microsoft teams allowed for a very public profile of the project while creating a private support forum for the ACES pupils, and a programme that allowed flexibility at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty for the pupils: participants could drop in and out as they were able, or catch up in their own time. An online exhibition on Instagram of the work that each pupil had made marked the culmination of the programme.

The initial programme ran from April-June and acted as a test run for the autumn semester – Jess and Helen learned a lot about what works and the areas where adjustments were necessary. They found out that online workshops were intense, especially for pupils who are also doing all of their schoolwork online. They also quickly discovered that producing demo videos and giving face-to-face feedback was more time-consuming than their normal work, so they needed to be well organised for the autumn.

Online insights

While most Reach activities moved online fairly quickly, this happened only after a significant amount of planning and adaptation. In 2020, Reach Tayside saw the highest number of pupils participating in UCAT Tutoring since its inception, and this meant Amy delivering practice question books to all pupils signed up across the region. Multiple virtual tutoring sessions took place every week for an eight-week period, while application support sessions also moved online to ensure that pupils felt confident in their UCAS submissions. The annual Explore Days used clinical skills videos, patient scenarios, and other adapted activities to create pupil participation and keep the interactive element that is so vital in exploring these degree areas. With informative talks from current students covering what it’s like to study these subjects at university, application talks from Alastair and Amy, and plenty of time for Q&A, these sessions ran smoothly and showed that Reach Tayside could deliver similar content in a virtual format to that which is usually delivered on-campus.

Gaining an insight into the profession is hugely important for anyone applying to Reach subjects. Every year, the team arrange for participants to do work experience, either in a local GP surgery, dental practice or law firm, bridging the gap for pupils who don’t always have a relative or neighbour who works in their chosen sector to talk to.

Creating these kinds of opportunities in 2020 was without a doubt the biggest challenge Reach faced. In this new age of social distancing, there was no feasible way of offering work experience. In addition, medical, dental and law students were learning online from home, so student shadowing was also out of the question. Activities being both free and accessible are key principles in any widening participation work, and it was from this starting point that TV Club was born. Recognising that there were a plethora of medical, dental and legal documentaries on free platforms like BBC iPlayer, YouTube, All 4 etc, the team used these resources to the pupils’ advantage. Each week for a four-week block, pupils would be assigned documentaries to watch at home and to note their observations in a specially created diary. Afterwards, a two-hour Teams session challenged them to reflect on the content, engage in discussion with both fellow pupils and university students, and ask questions. Pupils could hone in on some of the important skills and qualities required to study their chosen subject and work in the profession, and reflect more widely on the challenges of working in this sector. 

Pupils actually had increased exposure to different professions within the sectors through participating in these sessions, arguably more than they would have to do a real work experience placement. As such, they left with valuable and detailed reflections about what’s required to work in their chosen sector and feedback for these sessions was exceptionally positive. The Reach Tayside team now hope to take TV Club forward in 2021 to give the next cohort of applicants an insight into high-demand professions.

Material concerns

A big challenge for ACES was access to materials, which are usually provided at all ACES workshops. This was impossible for #collaboraces, and the difference in the materials pupils had access to at home was vast. School resources are very, very limited and pupils generally weren’t able to take materials home from school, in any case. For the autumn semester – the most important one for applicants to art school – ACES was able to buy materials in bulk and create bespoke materials packs for the pupils. Alastair and Helen had an interesting afternoon running the materials production line in her living room before the team delivered them to pupils across Angus, Dundee, Fife and Perthshire.

When it came to planning the programme for the autumn, Helen and co were careful to take all they had learned previously into account. This meant reducing the programme down to the essentials – application workshops and support sessions while focusing on life drawing and portfolio prep as a steady creative learning programme. Anything that really needed a studio or workshop to facilitate would simply have to wait at this time.

Fortunately, they had a wealth of pre-made resources to adapt and use online. Using breakout rooms on Teams meant application workshops ran almost exactly as they would have done in a classroom while the online life drawing programme from #collaboraces was able to be re-used. The only remaining challenge was to create a 12-week portfolio prep programme.

The aim of portfolio prep is to introduce a range of techniques and skills to the pupils – from new ways of drawing to printmaking to collage – before asking them to develop their work in the specialism they would be applying to in January 2021. Helen’s plan had always been to use the University of Dundee Botanic Garden as the starting point for the autumn 2021 project, and she decided to stick to this theme as everyone has access to Botanics in some form at home, from local parks to house plants or even weeds.

Live practical sessions followed a simple structure – after an introduction to the day’s session, participants either worked individually (for life drawing) or were split up into smaller groups to crack on with practical work (portfolio prep). Pupils were encouraged to post their work in the chat section of the meetings.

These practical sessions are more of a creative workspace than a classroom, while constant conversation and feedback with the DJCAD students mean the pupils get used to how things are done in university. This is the essence of ACES and the most important thing the team wanted to carry over from the traditional sessions to online workshops – art school isn’t like high school, it’s a community where the pupils can take charge of their work and creativity.

Through adapting to these challenging times and finding new and creative ways of giving pupils insights into their chosen degrees and the related professions, Amy, Helen and Alastair found a new way of working. Although they can’t wait to get back to campus and work with pupils face-to-face, coming together online at a time when everyone felt a little isolated and in need of extra support has been so important – for both pupils and the team. Whatever obstacles are placed in their way, they will continue to strive to level the playing field and transform the lives of pupils in Tayside.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Public interest