Seek first to understand, then to be understood: the importance of preparation and local connections in effective HE community work

In order for HE providers to truly support their local communities, they must first spend time getting to know their needs – here’s an example of how.

An African proverb states “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well, the same goes for higher education outreach in and with local communities. Universities may have the resources to create an entirely independent community programme, but taking this approach would all but guarantee a lack of impact, not to mention disengagement amongst the very people they are trying to reach.

As James Asfa of Citizens UK wrote in his recent WonkHE blog, many people walk past universities and see them as just “another building”. One way that HE institutions can increase their visibility with the local community is by joining up with the activities, networks, and individuals that are already serving that community well, supporting these through appropriate means, rather than insisting that the community comes to campus.

We know this because we did it. In February earlier this year, AccessHE ran a successful programme of creative skills and confidence-building workshops in a Tower Hamlets Pupil Referral Unit. An otherwise closed off and neglected community, the school, staff, parents and – crucially – students accessed support and inspiration from 15 local HE and community organisations, which ran 21 workshops across four weeks, ending in a community celebration event. The impact of this programme could only have been realised through first understanding this community – its challenges and structures – before seeking to support it.


Know before you go

If, like us, you are looking to engage hitherto underserved sections of your local communities, a great place to start is by reading the research. What kind of approaches, or project structures, does the literature suggest could work for that community? For pupil referral units, various studies attested to the impact of putting student voices and practical activities at the core of a programme; the greater students’ capacity to use their voice to effect change in their community, the more likely they are to take actions in their community which make constructive contributions. Perhaps the research you encounter will confirm your original idea(s) – or perhaps it will alter them. Either way, it’s progress.

Whilst it is important to consider ‘what works’, an awareness of the ethical and logistical challenges of such community programmes is equally important. We spoke to Kingston University and other AccessHE members, as well as Uni Connect colleagues across the country and organisations with a long track record of working with PRUs, such as Spiral Skills. They were a key source of knowledge and a critical sounding board for our project idea.


But this knowledge only goes so far…

When it came time to connect with the school and community to understand their challenges and needs, we prioritised our relationship with the PRU itself, meeting fortnightly with staff and attending end-of-term student events, where we could connect with parents/carers. This contact began at least three months before our project did, meaning that when it came to delivery, we already held good relationships with the staff, SEN support workers, counsellors, and community services which visited from the local authority and GLA’s Violence Reduction Unit (it really does take a village!). We knew the timetable off by heart and we understood the student-staff ratio, which enabled our programme to slot seamlessly into the PRU’s schedule.

Not only was it important to establish understanding and positive relationships with the PRU network, but also local community organisations which were doing excellent work just beyond the school gates. Tower Hamlets has a large Bangladeshi population, so charities like the Osmani Trust – whose origins lay in supporting Bangladeshi youth – and Spotlight Youth Centre were important links to make. To connect with the wider community, we reached out to the Roman Road Trust and Bow Arts, who had strong ties to community leaders and local artists, which ended up featuring in our programme; community partners were instrumental to spreading the word about our celebration event.

We were keen to involve the University of East London, owing to its locale and course specialisms. We saw an opportunity for UEL to offer support through their current Speech and Language Communication students, themselves members of the local community. Volunteering on our project was, for them, an opportunity to gain work experience and apply their learnings in a unique, non-mainstream school setting. The PRU students for their part were able to interact with positive student role models and learn strategies for healthy communication.


A programme for the community, informed by the community

The result of the time invested in listening to the community and connecting with its ‘village’ of support was a programme that has created new and lasting relationships between many of the partners, who continue to visit students. A repeat programme is actively in planning. Positive changes to participants’ teamwork and engagement were reported at the end of the project, and just under 50% of students have since transitioned back into mainstream education (a key aim of the PRU). No less importantly, there now exists a bridge between local HE providers and Alternative Provision in Tower Hamlets – a relationship that had, by their own admission, seemed unthinkable to staff at the PRU a few months previously.

For many HE institutions, work with the community will underpin strategic plans and core missions. It may be key to addressing challenges at the heart of the OfS’ forthcoming ‘equality of opportunity risk register’. But just because the work is pressing, it does not mean it can be rushed. Delivering a project which truly has the community at its heart takes time, patience, good listening skills and the resolve to adapt. Hard work, but it’s worth it.

This blog has been written by Beth Hayden, AccessHE Uni Connect Outreach Coordinator at London Higher.

To learn more about running an effective programme in a Pupil Referral Unit, AccessHE are running a workshop on Thursday 24th November, 10am-12:30pm in Central London. Spaces are limited, and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. Please email to find out more.