Stephen Parry-Jones, Seren Network hub coordinator for Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil, takes a look at the network’s successes to date and plans to extend its coverage…

The Seren Network arose from concerns expressed by Lord Murphy, the former Cabinet Minister, that numbers of Welsh undergraduates at Oxford had declined. Lord Murphy was then appointed Welsh Government Oxbridge Ambassador and asked to explore possible reasons; he produced his final report in 2014, which can be viewed on the Seren website.

I was one of 11 individuals, drawn from every Welsh local authority, who were charged with turning his suggestion into some sort of reality. The emphasis was to be on bringing academically gifted sixth-formers together in “hubs” and providing them with super-curricular activities, as well as the additional support and guidance that a strong Oxbridge application requires.

Increase in Oxbridge applications from Wales

Many extension classes, visits from HE outreach officials, and trips to universities later, I was both pleased and relieved that the first independent evaluation, in 2017, was positive, in particular that “Seren makes a positive contribution to raising aspirations, boosting confidence and encouraging students to think more ambitiously about their university choices.”

The numbers are still being crunched, but it was encouraging that UCAS reported a 6% increase in “October 15th” applications from Wales – and this from a smaller pool of 17-year-olds, and with only the three pilot hubs functioning. Cambridge in particular has reported an upturn in the number of applications from Wales and, more importantly, the number of offers made. Applications to Oxford have also increased, though we have still to crack the challenging entrance tests that applicants face.

We quickly began to see that Seren was not just about Oxbridge, but about high-tariff university courses in general, whether in Wales, the wider UK or beyond. In my own hub, which serves some of Wales’ most deprived regions, I have been delighted to see Seren students taking up places at the most competitive universities, with Bristol, Imperial, Manchester and Warwick proving very popular. One student from our first cycle also gained a place at Yale, and others are now determined to follow her.

Plans to extend Seren’s work to KS3 and 4 

Of the evaluation’s recommendations, perhaps the most significant was the idea that Seren extend its work into Key Stages 3 and 4. This was something Seren hub coordinators and heads of sixth-form were already trying to do: we had very early on realised that remedial work post-16, focusing just on the sixth form, is simply too late. Ambitions often crystallise in Key Stage 3 and GCSE options, so critical for future pathways, are increasingly made in Year 8.

As with the hubs geared to sixth formers, work here will probably start with pilots, though existing hub coordinators are well placed to broker partnerships between schools, universities and organisations such as NACE and The Brilliant Club.

Local universities are also a supremely valuable resource, and Rhondda Cynon Taf has for several years organised an intensive day for its most academic Year 9 pupils at the University of South Wales. Subjects on offer have included philosophy, Mandarin, solving unusual maths problems, and Latin. Many of those attending had previously been unaware of the university’s existence, and were surprised to find they were able to cope with intellectual exercises of demanding nature. For some, it was the first time they had realised that they were “clever.”

Another crucial asset is local students at top-flight universities who are willing to talk to school pupils. Rhondda Cynon Taf has run an Oxbridge day for Year 10 pupils, featuring stimulating Q&A sessions with current undergraduates. We have now extended this to parents, and have been lucky to be able to call upon access and outreach fellows from both universities to talk to parents on a “cluster” basis. This has been particularly important in busting those Oxbridge myths which can do so much to deter able learners who are not from privileged backgrounds.

Our challenge now will be how we avoid diluting Seren’s offer without excluding those who might benefit – keeping in mind NACE’s core principles that ability is fluid, can be developed, and is closely linked to mindset.

After reading modern history at Oxford, Stephen Parry-Jones taught for 38 years. Apart from a five-year stint in a London direct grant grammar school, his career was spent in comprehensive schools in South Wales. He retired as a deputy head in 2015, and is now Seren hub coordinator for Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil education authorities.  

Find out more…

Find out more about developments in Wales at the NACE Cymru Conference in Cardiff on 28 June. The conference brings together school leaders, teachers, researchers and policy makers to discuss and share evidence-based good practice to support more able learners. View the full programme and book your place.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018