University Parent Ambassador Programme
A pilot approach to engaging with parents
This programme aims to normalise the idea of higher education among parents/carers in communities with low HE participation so they can recognise HE’s value and feel confident in supporting their children to make choices, apply and settle in at university. The project’s ambassadors are parents/carers of children at schools and sixth-form colleges in Uni Connect wards who are also supporting older children at university. Through signposting information and sharing personal experiences, the ambassadors aim to help other parents to overcome concerns about their children accessing higher education.
Taking a peer-to-peer approach, the programme works to help schools and colleges improve parental engagement, to provide a neutral space for parents/carers to share their concerns with other parents (ambassadors), and for parents to benefit from tried-and-tested sources of information, advice and guidance.
The ambassadors are recruited through priority schools. They are interviewed and then take part in a series of training sessions which include role-play and sharing their experiences of their children’s journey into higher education. Once parents are confident about engaging with other parents at events, they are supported by SLN:Uni Connect staff to attend events before ‘going it alone’.
There are currently four parent ambassadors available to take part in events and activities including school parents’ evenings, college open evenings and community events, as well as widening participation events at Sussex and Brighton universities. Parents have been filmed for short videos covering topics such as outreach events, homesickness and applying to Oxbridge to help promote the role and recruitment of new ambassadors.
Because the programme relies on peer-to-peer conversations usually at large events, its impact is quite tricky to pin down in a quantifiable manner. Where the ambassadors have had a named session at an event that has been evaluated by the organiser, the session has been ranked highly by participants. There are, however, a few key impacts worth flagging up:
- Parents attending university events said it felt good to speak to another parent and get an honest, unbiased answer about choosing where to study, university life and student finance. “It was the best part of the evening because the information came from somebody I knew I could trust and who knew my situation.” It’s important to note that this is not because teaching staff and universities are seen as untrustworthy, just that they sometimes are seen to be ‘selling’ the idea of higher education.
- Parents at community events said they found it useful to know that children from their local area went to university, as they had previously assumed that not many did.
- Parents attending school events were pleased that the school was encouraging children to think about university and providing role models and early support.
- Parents attending both community and school events found the ambassadors’ information on outreach particularly useful and said that they were more likely to encourage their children to attend an outreach programme that another parent had recommended.
- The parent ambassadors also benefited from the events, by exchanging information and sharing advice on supporting their children at university.
KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A key finding from the programme has been that parents/carers attending the events value having an ‘honest opinion’ from someone impartial and not feeling like they are being ‘sold something’. They feel they can trust other parents and are comfortable about asking questions that they might hesitate to ask university or school staff.
Recommendations based on the programme’s work so far include:
- For all schools to appoint university parent ambassadors to normalise higher education participation in schools.
- For communities to use university parent ambassadors to help parents/carers to have informal discussions about their perceived obstacles to higher education.
- For universities to involve parents/carers, wherever possible, in supporting their children to settle into the first year of study.
- For universities to place parents and carers at the centre of their outreach plans and include them in all communications to ensure a holistic, whole-family approach.
- Widening participation and widening access programmes use parental deficit measures for targeting, which some parents/carers find difficult. Levels of parental education and income, as well as their postcode, are all used as criteria, and this deficit approach can sometimes cause concern. A more positive, inclusive approach needs to be taken.
- In numerous reports, children have cited parents and families as their biggest influences in their study and career choices. It is therefore unhelpful and possibly counterintuitive not to work with a student’s wider family and lived experiences.
- Focusing programmes that encourage students to undertake a lifestyle and level of education that their parents have not had can sometimes set up conflict and misunderstandings in families. It is important to mitigate that at every step.
If you are hosting an event that you think that could benefit from the attendance of University Parent Ambassadors, please email Fay Lofty.return
Parents and family are one of the biggest influences on young people’s study and career choices, according to the 2016 All About School Leavers Survey in which 56% of students stated that parents had the most influence, far higher than teachers (16%), careers advisers (8% ) and friends (10%). This programme aims to address the barriers to participation in higher education through parents of university students engaging with parents of potential HE students.