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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Improving low-SES school students’ access to higher education

Annette Cairnduff
Head, Social Inclusion and Equity Support, University of Sydney

People from backgrounds of low socio-economic status (SES) are significantly under-represented in Australian higher education. In urban areas, people from low SES comprise 12.8% of the population but occupy only 9% of higher education places (Universities Australia 2008, 5). However, once enrolled at university, low-SES students in urban areas have similar patterns of retention, success and completion as those from other backgrounds. 

Internationally, programs have been operating to address these barriers for some years now, predominately in Britain and Canada. The Aimhigher Program, for example, has been running in Britain since 2002. It aims to inform young people and the key influencers in their educational decision-making through outreach to parents, teachers and students.

In Australia, higher education institutions have provided one-off experiences for secondary school students to entice them into higher education. Yet despite these measures, and despite the financial assistance put in place to support low-SES students (Universities Australia 2008, 2), there has been no significant change to this pattern since 2001. These students’ access to university is held back not only by lack of financial support but also by lower levels of achievement in schools, lower educational aspirations and lower school completion rates.

The Participation and Equity Review commissioned by Universities Australia in 2008 identifies multiple possibilities for specialised programs to address barriers to access. As well as scholarships and other financial support and incentives, these measures include activities to support school retention, activities to raise students’ awareness of higher education, alternative pathways to higher education and first-year transition programs. In 2009, a new program at the University of Sydney will put some of these proposals into practice.

The Social Inclusion Project

Starting this year, the University of Sydney's Social Inclusion Project will seek to increase the capacity and desire of school students from low SES backgrounds to participate in higher education. A series of outreach, mentoring and professional development activities will seek to build aspiration and attainment within the identified school communities.

Initiated by the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), Derrick Armstrong, the project involves a partnership between the University and the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), and is supported with funding from DET and the University and the Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund of the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations .

The project will commence with two Sydney Region secondary schools (Marrickville High School and Kogarah High School) and their six partner primary schools (Marrickville West, Marrickville, Athelstane, Bexley, Kogarah and Wilkins). Both secondary schools are part of the NSW Priority Schools Project (PSP), which provides extra funding to schools identified as having high numbers of low-SES students. In the second year of the program, the activities will be expanded into two South West Sydney secondary schools and six of their partner primary schools.

Raising school student awareness, attainment and aspiration

The primary schools

Throughout the project, students in Grades 3 and 4 will visit the University for a cultural or learning experience. There will also be regular visits to the primary schools by University students and staff to support programs such as Science Week and Book Week.

The University of Sydney will additionally develop a blog and website allowing primary students, their teachers and University educators to share experiences and feedback across the six partner primary schools.

The secondary schools

Student Experience days will be held at the University for Years 9, 10 and 11. The sessions will include a choice of faculty-based activities, a University tour and a ‘What’s university really like?’ session with current University students.

After-school study groups will be run by students from the University for ten weeks twice a year. Study groups will be targeted at small groups of students in Years 9 and 10 to support their study in a particular subject and general study skill development. The study groups will attend the University once during the program for a cultural or learning experience such as a museum visit or attendance at a musical performance or public lecture.

At least twice a year at each of secondary schools, school-based master classes for students in Years 8 and 9/10 will be run by either University academic or postgraduate students. They will be subject-based, with students working on a specific area in depth. University-based master classes will also be offered to students in Years 9 or 10. Instead of basing selection solely on academic achievement, students will be chosen for the master class subjects as an aspiration and attainment-building exercise.

In addition, ‘University Student Ambassadors’ will visit the secondary schools. The Ambassadors (where possible, school alumni) will speak at school assemblies, daily home group sessions and through video conferences between the school and the University.

Developing school staff expectations, awareness and aspiration

A professional development program will engage both primary and secondary school staff in the areas of curriculum development and teacher support. The school principals have identified science, maths, music and developing student attainment and engagement as areas in which support from the University could add value.

Professional development will include small action research projects in teachers’ work environments around topics of their choice, supported by seminars and feedback sessions at the University and facilitators at the schools.

Teachers can choose to have this program accredited towards a Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies.

Early career primary teachers, in their first three years, will be helped to develop quality teaching skills. They will receive both online and face-to-face support from a mentor - an experienced teacher educator who will provide feedback on lesson plans, observe specified lessons and assist with unpacking curriculum.

Every year, the University will offer teachers at each of the eight schools a Professional Development day aimed at building organisational knowledge. These sessions will introduce the University facilities that are available for school use and/or focus on a particular curriculum issue.

The University Careers Centre will provide professional development and support for careers advisors in secondary schools, helping them to supply more information to parents, teachers and students about career pathways and career development opportunities. A Career Development day for secondary students will be held at the University each year. Other career-related activities will include parent seminars at the secondary schools and two professional development sessions per year for careers advisors.

The Science Alliance

The University’s successful Science Alliance Program will be extended to the participating primary and secondary schools. Activity will include attendance at three Professional Development days for secondary school science teachers

All Grade 4 and 5 students in each of the six primary schools will be invited to Science Experience days at the University, including an amazing science show and workshops. Both Year 8 and 9 and Grade 4 and 5 students will attend the ‘Science in the City’ event. Activities include hands-on experiments, lectures and seminars about different science topics and science shows which demonstrate some key scientific principles.

Activities to build parent engagement, aspirations and expectations.

There is considerable evidence that aspirations are formed early in life, and that family experience of higher education is a key factor in attitudinal development.

University representatives will speak to parents at secondary school subject selection sessions held for Years 8 and 10. These sessions will outline the nature of support provided by higher education institutions, the costs of attending university, and information about application process and pathways. There will also be more promotion of cultural activities available at the University to parents, students and staff.


The project will be evaluated using both qualitative and quantitative measures. Evaluation of both the overall success of the project and individual elements will take place throughout and at the completion of the three years to measure the success of the various activities in raising awareness, aspiration and access to higher education.


Advancing Equity and Participation in Australian Higher Education, Universities Australia 2008


Subject Headings

Educational planning
New South Wales (NSW)
Socially disadvantaged
Primary education
Secondary education