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White working class boys encouraged to think ‘He Can, we can’

A pioneering programme to reduce barriers white working class boys face in education and raise their aspirations, is being launched by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The programme coined “He can, we can” will feature a mentoring initiative, events to encourage disadvantaged boys into sectors such as health, and a conference bringing together industry professionals to help tackle low male aspirations.

In 2016, the Government called on universities to target white working class boys to increase participation in higher education, as part of a wider drive to improve the social mobility of disadvantaged groups.

Earlier this year attention was further drawn to underrepresentation of this group at universities by rapper Professor Green in a documentary highlighting the stories of six young men with working class backgrounds from different areas across the country.

UEA’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof David Richardson grew up near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and at a school was a teenager who hadn’t felt university was for him. “At one point as a teenager I was someone who wasn’t doing that well at school and was probably destined to leave school at 16 but I could see the opportunities a university education brings and I turned things around. Unfortunately, the low proportion of men attending university, compared to women is a national issue, but one we at UEA are keen to address.

“Young men in this group can be disengaged with education, have low aspirations and may think that University isn’t within their reach, or not for them. We want to provide boys with more opportunities, but also want to encourage them to raise their own expectations and change their thinking around higher education.”

A recent Higher Education Policy Institute report has suggested that women born in 2018 could be up to 75% more likely to enter higher education than men.

Currently, only 20% of universities in the UK actively work with young disadvantaged males to raise their attainment and it is hoped the “He can, we can” programme can be replicated across the sector.

Charlotte Wheatland, Assistant Head of Outreach at UEA, said: “The programme aims to engage male students, raising their aspirations, confidence, and attainment, to help them progress to higher education.

“We want to have a significant impact on the young people in large pockets of working class males across the UK.”

One innovative element of the programme is “Inside Industry”, a six month initiative where teenagers receive mentoring from UEA students and local organisations including Aviva, marketing agency Creative Sponge and the John Innes Centre.

Students are matched with mentors based on their interests and hobbies, and at the end of the programme they will present a project based on what they’ve learnt throughout the process.

Neil Baxter, Strategic Workforce Management Lead at Aviva, said: “Positive role models play an important part in helping shape young people’s futures. They play a key part in helping young people make good life choices, and those choices can increase their chances of having a successful future.”

There is a specific underrepresentation of men in the health sector, so UEA are inviting male students who have the potential and ability to progress into higher education to an event on 9 July, opening their eyes to the opportunities available. 

The event held at Norwich City Football Club will include taster sessions from a variety of health professions and gives attendees the opportunity to see the range of professions and opportunities available.  

UEA is already nationally-known for their “Sports for Boys” programme which brings young people onto campus to try new sports and experience university life. This has been running for nine years and 65% of the people who took part in last year’s event said they were more likely to go to university after the event.

The university is also focusing on making changes to the wider education sector, and will bring together teachers, careers advisors, other practitioners and MPs to look towards how people can better support white working class boys in the long-term, at a conference on 18 July.

UEA has already started to see the results of its more general outreach work, with the proportion of male students at UEA on the rise since 2014/15. Charlotte Wheatland added: “We still have lots of work to do but we hope this dedicated programme is a step towards ensuring that everyone has access to the same opportunities, regardless of class.”

For more background information on access to higher education read this research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.