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University encounters for students in County Durham

St Bede’s Catholic Comprehensive School in Peterlee, County Durham, has built a partnership with the University of Sheffield to help students in a range of year groups learn more about their options when it comes to higher education. 

Dr Paul O’Neill, a senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, spent a full day meeting with students in years 9 to 13, sharing his personal experiences of studying at the University of Oxford and talking about the range of courses on offer at university.

As a language specialist, Dr O’Neill also met with those students who are currently learning a language to talk about the benefits of studying languages at university and how this can help to develop skills which employers are looking for. 

The day included a morning assembly for year 12, where Dr O’Neill discussed his own experience of coming from a Northern, working-class background, to study at Oxbridge. This was followed by sessions with different year groups and opportunities for students to ask questions. 

Impact across a range of year groups 

Following the visit, teachers have observed a range of effects on students. 

In year 10 Spanish classes, students have increased in confidence, having successfully held conversations in Spanish with Dr O’Neill despite not thinking of themselves as particularly able speakers.

In year 9, students have been talking positively about the benefits of language learning, and those in years 10 and 11 have shown an understanding of how their language studies can help them gain skills that are valued by employers. 

And a number of students in years 12 and 13 have consolidated their decision to study Spanish at university.

Top tips for success:

  • The relationship with the provider should be through more than one person within the school. 
  • Allow time for preparation with students about the role of a lecturer within the university environment. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to prepare questions and allocate time for these to be asked and answered.

Three biggest challenges:

  • Maintaining the relationship with the university if someone in the school leaves.
  • Curriculum time being given over to complete the activity.
  • Maintaining momentum amongst students following the activity – potential necessity for a follow up too.

What next?
The school would like to extend the University Encounters programme to include years 7 and 8, so that younger students can begin to consider their options at an earlier stage. 
It’s also been suggested that the programme could take place over a longer period of time, allowing for follow-up activities and for students to ask more questions once they’ve had time to think about what they have learnt. 

To find out more, contact Careers Leader Tracey Robinson on [email protected]