Raising Aspirations: University of Liverpool, Professor Fluffy Programme

Professor Fluffy is the project guide that inspires primary school children and their parents through an introductory journey into Higher Education. The programme based at the University of Liverpool is implemented across Merseyside tackling inequalities for socio economically disadvantaged communities. The programme includes Professor Fluffy visits to schools, a teacher’s pack, online resources, university visits including parents and Professor Fluffy Road show. The programme has been evaluated as a success and has been replicated.

Objectives of the Intervention

The Professor Fluffy Programme is targeted at Year 5/6 (children aged 9-11 years old), It provides a range or fun, hands on and interactive activities that aim to:

  • raise awareness of further and higher education to children in primary schools in areas of low participation
  • enhance the cultural capital of participants
  • Raise aspirations of young people
  • Link students with local young people as role models
  • Increase self esteem
  • Raise awareness of the concept of choice
  • Raise awareness of further and higher education at primary school level
  • Empower young people with a knowledge and vocabulary of Higher Education (e.g. “campus”, “degree”, “lecture”, “graduation”, etc.)
  • Raise the aspirations not only of the individual young people but of their families, through the active participation of parents/guardians.

The Primary Programme is part of a progression curriculum for targeted schools in Greater Merseyside. Educational Opportunities currently works with 60 primary schools reaching over 2700 children. The 60 primary schools identified feed in to 25 target secondary schools.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

For a number of years, the University of Liverpool (UoL) has been undertaking pioneering work on higher education access and has developed particular expertise in raising aspirations and understanding of university in younger age groups, most notably through its “Professor Fluffy” primary programme.

The recognition of the need for higher education institutions (HEIs) to work in primary schools was as a direct consequence of a European Objective 3-funded “White Coats” action research project (1999-2001). This work identified that young people of black and minority ethnic (BME) heritage in post-16 or secondary schooling in inner-city Liverpool were extremely unlikely to be on a progression route to the University of Liverpool (and in particular to the Faculty of Medicine). This emphasis on the need to start raising the aspirations of primary age children has been at the heart of UoL’s approach since that time.

The primary delivery models include a campus based intervention which consists of teacher led session in the school classroom and a visit to a university campus. The Professor Fluffy Roadshow model is a school based model and was developed as a way of impacting on a significantly greater number of young people.

In 2006 the UoL applied for National Aimhigher funding to take the model to other HEIs/FECs, one of the main drivers for this application was the number of schools contacting the UoL from across the country. In 2007 the National Primary Network was established with the aim of building the capacity of HEIs, FECs and Aimhigher Partnerships to deliver high quality, targeted widening participation activities for primary age children and their families. In 2009/10 26 partners reached 18,000 children.

The project has developed the successful and innovative Professor Fluffy as the project guide. She captures the imagination of primary school pupils (and their parents) and introduces FE/HE through the concept of a Learning Journey. The primary team have also developed a range of delivery resources including a comic book, activity booklets and a teachers’ pack. Professor Fluffy also has a Website in the format of interactive games. The website has five adventures including a STEM focused adventure. The resources also include a range of curriculum modules linked to KS2 national curriculum and other national primary agendas. In 2006 the Professor Fluffy Engineering module was developed in partnership with the London Engineering Project. This module has since been delivered as part of the UoL delivery programme and has also been rolled out nationally through the National Primary Network.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

UoL delivers the Professor Fluffy programme in over 60 schools across Greater Merseyside with over 2, 700 Year 5/6 pupils participating each year. The primary schools involved in the programme are all located in areas of multiple deprivation and are within wards of low participation in higher education. In Merseyside there are many communities in which there is no culture of progression to higher education and, for many people within these communities; higher education is an alien concept, not visible as a progression route for individuals or in the vocabulary of these young people and their families. The UoL approach is based on the need to give young people and their parents the knowledge that higher education could be an option for them.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Research shows that there is a relationship between disadvantage and educational achievement; young people from low socio economic groups are still under-represented in higher education. Raising aspirations in young people from areas of multiple deprivations is a key priority for any political party. Government policies are driving schools to become more accountable for areas such as pupil wellbeing, parent and pupil perceptions, breaking the link between disadvantage and low attainment and partnership working. (A School Report Card Prospectus, DCSF and Ofsted, 2009.)

Primary schools have a critical role in raising aspirations of young people and their families and as a University we have a social responsibility to support them.

In October 2008, The National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE) October made a recommendation stating “Every primary school should devote time to work on raising student aspirations to take up a place in higher education. Schools and HEIs should try to ensure that every pupil visits a higher education campus either during primary or early secondary education, concentrating initially on schools in low participation or deprived areas.”

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

UoL began the primary initiative in 2000 and, to date, has developed the following delivery models:

Professor Fluffy Curriculum Visits
The Professor Fluffy modules offer a wide range of curriculum –enhancing activities whist also raising awareness of higher education. The curriculum modules support elements of the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum.

The programme is delivered in two stages. The first stage involves a school based activity using the Professor Fluffy Raising Aspirations Teachers Pack. Teachers are asked to deliver this session as a preparatory lesson to prepare the children for the visit day.

The second stage is the visit to the university. This involves children working alongside undergraduate students taking part in a curriculum-themed carousel of activities, graduation photographs, campus tour and a certificates ceremony. Parents/carers are invited to attend this day and are asked to share in the same programme as their child. We offer a series of curriculum modules including engineering, biology, chemistry, Egyptology, ICT, medicine and several languages.

By the end of the intervention, we aim that the children will:

  • Have a better understanding of post-secondary choices available to them
  • Be familiar with the university environment and will be more aware of the vocabulary of higher education
  • Learn about subject choices available at university through the curriculum themed activities
  • Gain an understanding of the benefits of a university education and opportunities this could offer.

Professor Fluffy Roadshow
The Professor Fluffy Roadshow is an informative and interactive session delivered in school which incorporates a variety of teaching and learning styles. It provides an ideal introduction to higher education and is structured as follows:

  • An interactive Professor Fluffy website session
  • Professor Fluffy and Friend comic book activity
  • Evaluation
  • Graduation ceremony with certificates and incentives

By the end of the intervention, we aim that the children will:

  • gain a understanding of higher education and the learning journey
  • have explored the concepts of choice and decision-making which will help the children when it comes to making future life choices.

Raising Aspirations Teachers’ Pack
This hands-on, innovative pack provides five linked sessions and enables teachers to easily deliver a higher education aspiration-raising programme for Years 5 and/or 6. The pack contains five comprehensible lesson plans, ideas and resources for delivery, as well as a range of suggestions for extension activities.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

Working with primary age children is, by definition, taking a long-term approach, as the results of this work (in terms of young people being attracted to applying) will not be seen for many years. UoL is committed to delivering primary activities and part of our core work which has been written in to the University’s Access Agreement is to deliver the Professor Fluffy models to primary schools in Greater Merseyside.

The Professor Fluffy Models have been replicated via the National Primary Network rollout.

To date, some partners continue to use the Professor Fluffy models and resources whilst others have developed their own materials based on the work at UoL.

Resources used in the initiative

Funding for this project has come from a variety of sources. Between 2006 and 2010 we received some funding through the Aimhigher initiative which enabled us to reach a wider area. HEFCE provided funding which enabled us to create resources to allow other HEIs to use the Professor Fluffy model in their own context, whilst our Raising Aspirations Teachers’ Pack received funding from the Sutton Trust.

Currently, all of our work is funded by UoL as part of the University’s continued commitment to widening participation.

The role of the Student Advocates is crucial to our delivery programmes. There are multiple benefits both to the undergraduate and the university. For the students, these included work experience (in terms of transferable skills, enhancing future employability, etc.) and an overall enhancement of the student experience through an enjoyable and pleasurable activity. For our programmes, our children and their families are provided with positive role models who can share their experiences of university life and answer any questions they may have.

The Student Advocate Programme recruits up to 50 new students per year. It is a paid role and students are required to complete a short application form which asks them to write about their understanding/experience of widening participation and their motivation for wanting to become an advocate. These roles are highly sought after and we have a high application rate.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

In 2010, HEFCE commissioned an evaluation of the University of Liverpool Primary project. (HEFCE Primary Pilot Evaluation Report April 2010: McNeill, J) The research showed that the pre and post focus group data, collected routinely by the University of Liverpool Primary Team as part of their evaluation strategy, illustrates a positive impact on the young participants. The pupils participating in the pre and post intervention focus groups demonstrate how an initial vagueness about what a university is, becomes an informed aspiration post-intervention.

‘The biggest impact of the Project on pupils that teachers reported was in raised aspirations of pupils with 94% of teaching staff respondents identifying this as a positive outcome. 41% of respondents noted that their pupils demonstrated a higher level of commitment to learning and homework after taking part in the project.’ (McNeill, J. 2010)

We are not able to do a focus group for every intervention that takes place, but pupils, staff and parents fill out an evaluation form which allows us to monitor our performance continually.

We are currently looking into ways to track students throughout their school career to get more data on progression to university from our programmes.

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