Learning for life
More than 70 young people in and around Swindon who face social barriers are receiving a major boost to their education, thanks to a £50,000 grant from Wiltshire Freemasons. Peter Watts talks to the inspiring teenagers who are improving their career prospects with the Villiers Park Educational Trust Scholars Programme
Over the past 10 years, hundreds of young people from deprived or difficult backgrounds have been able to achieve their full potential thanks to the work of the Villiers Park Educational Trust. The pioneering four-year Scholars Programme is run by the trust, a social mobility charity that targets high-ability children from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing them with regular mentoring sessions. The programme also pays for them to go on residential trips and workshops designed to improve their confidence, motivation, resilience and employability, as well as giving them the chance to enjoy opportunities that they may not otherwise have been made aware of. A £50,000 grant from Wiltshire Freemasons via the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) will fund one of these mentoring positions in Swindon for two years. ‘This generosity allows our mentors to continue doing their amazing work,’ says deputy director of development Rosie Knowles. ‘It’s particularly great for us to have the Freemasons commit to more than a single year of funding, as we are focused on immersive long-term interventions.’
The charity currently operates in Swindon, Hastings, Bexhill, Tyneside, East Lancashire, Crawley and Norfolk, and hopes to widen its offering to other areas if more funding becomes available. There are four mentors in Swindon, who support children through their GCSEs and A-levels. ‘The mentors build up fabulous relationships,’ says Knowles. ‘They provide support and guidance and help young people develop skills to become more rounded individuals. Everything is built around developing these skills, as this is what empowers them to thrive and be self-sufficient in their success.’ The children are also able to give something back. ‘We encourage them to run self-led and inquiry-led projects in their schools,’ says Knowles. ‘This creates a ripple effect and a culture of positive learning. These young people really are incredible.’
Rahul Vital, 19
My family is from India and we moved to Swindon when I was five. My mum and dad had to drop out of school at a young age, which was why I was scouted for Villiers Park. In India, you weren’t rewarded for good work at school, but were punished for bad work – quite different to here in England.
The importance of education was made clear to me by my parents. I was encouraged to learn an instrument, take up art and do sports. I was approached by Villiers Park in year 9 and assigned a mentor, who helped me prepare for exams and job interviews, and create a CV. I also met other students on residential trips. I am now studying cancer biomedicine at University College London. Aspects of that came from a Villiers Park residential, where we learnt about cellular biology. I knew I wanted to do medicine or something with the sciences and these courses reinforced that decision.
The programme helped with a lot of the stress I had at A-level. My mentor, Becki, would talk about how we were doing. She reassured me and I got an A* and 3 As. It’s definitely given me confidence. I wasn’t good at presentations, but going to these classes, learning to speak effectively and doing personal statements has been a lot of help. As a result of this I would definitely be willing to do something similar to help others. It was such a relief, so it would be great to do that for somebody else.
Jaime Hessell, 16
None of my family had been to university, but now I really want to go – that’s because of Villiers Park. I have taken as much from it as possible because I feel so lucky to be involved. I was shy before and it’s given me more confidence. I can now talk in front of the other Scholars and their parents.
I always enjoyed school, but Villiers Park has shown me new things. We did a workshop and that gave me an interest in sociology, which is what I want do at university. We learn a bit of everything. It has given us a wider understanding of what is out there, beyond just maths and English. I am currently doing AS-levels and next year will do A-levels in maths, sociology and environmental studies.
My mentoring sessions with Becki and Julie have been incredibly helpful. Through Villiers Park, I joined the INVOLVE project, which has meant teaching maths to year-7s. I want to be a teacher, so it’s given me more of an understanding of what it’s like, what a stress it is but also how rewarding it can be. I had lower-ability students, and one of my pupils didn’t know her three times table, so I taught her every week until she was able to recite them. I also like to show them why you need maths for different things, such as architecture and business.
Acacia Baldie, 17
I live with my mum and my brother and we moved to Swindon just before the Villiers Park Scholars Programme started. I think the trust chose me because I was doing okay at school and they saw my potential. I love school, but had always thought university would be too expensive and you had to be very smart to go. I changed my mind after learning a bit more. We have regular mentor sessions where you learn employability and interview skills, and exam preparation tips. You also have paid-for residential trips where a specialist in your subject will talk to you. The mentors have all been really supportive, and explain everything clearly. They ask you about yourself and what you need help with. It’s life skills, the sort of thing school and college doesn’t focus on.
I am doing four A-Levels this year: fine art, textiles, biology and geography. My plan is to do Korean studies at university – I have identical offers from SOAS and Sheffield. Why Korea? I really liked the language and enjoy Korean shows. Plus I have Korean friends and I love the history and culture. My mentor helped me choose my subjects. I originally wanted to teach English in Korea but my mentor made me realise I should focus on what I enjoy, which was the culture.
Jordan Jones, 18
I was the first in my family to go to university and Villiers Park is about showing more options to people like me. Some of my peers weren’t looking at university, but I wanted to be an architect, so I knew I had a different career path. Villiers Park approached education in a different way to schools. They didn’t judge us, they were interested in how we got there and in how we used creative thinking. At school you have to appease all the people around you, but Villiers Park takes you out of that and allows you to be your own person and to flourish.
I went to Villiers Park thinking architecture was for me, but I looked at university courses with my mentor, Becki, and realised I wanted to be more involved in the design and maths of why a building works, so I am now studying civil engineering. I was so grateful, because I would have barrelled into a course and found out it wasn’t for me. I started at Plymouth University in September. It’s a challenge, but I have the structure of how to revise and study from Villiers Park, and it’s nice to have that ongoing support. A lot of people I know never had it at all, so I’m just grateful I got it in the first place.
For details, visit www.villierspark.org.uk
‘The mentors have all been really supportive, and explain everything clearly. They ask you what you need help with. It’s life skills, the sort of thing school doesn’t focus on’