NECOP, NERAP and Peerz Academy are changing lives in the North East, but have you ever heard of them?

The North East Raising Aspirations Partnership (NERAP) works specifically with looked after young people and the North East Collaboration Outreach Programme (NECOP) like NERAP work with schools and universities (Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teeside) in the North East Region to ensure every young person is given the opportunity to seriously consider their future within higher education. I’ve worked with some of the funniest, friendliest and diligent young people you can think of the, and I can confirm that the power of conversation, myth breaking and providing insight is ultimately, life changing.

Nonetheless, this process is not just happening through one to one mentoring in schools, interactive events, group sessions and insight days: It’s been made astonishingly easy to transfer knowledge from peer to peer through the innovation by Wayne Harrison, founder of ‘Peerz Academy.’ Peerz Academy currently supports 108 schools in the North East by providing their students with additional one to one maths, English and higher education tuition sessions. These 30 minute mentoring sessions are accessible and free to all children at the 108 schools, and it overcomes the financial barrier of private tuition. What’s more? University students and others can become verified mentors, from the comfort of their own bedroom on their own laptop or computer. All lessons plans and outlines are created beforehand by qualified teachers, but research shows, delivering peer to peer mentoring is just as effective as private mentoring, and within half an hour, I have been able to go on the GCSE journey with hundreds of students- from half an hour of expanding brackets to half an hour of persuasive writing techniques- Peerz provides me with a part time job that changes grades, impacts confidence and overcomes the financial barrier of private tuition that some children may face.

Credit: The Bubble

There’s so much we might take for granted. There are so many reasons why children in the North East may be prevented from attending university- but its subtle things; subtle factors that we can change through the power of conversation. Throughout my time working for NECOP and now NERAP I can tell you, it’s not someone saying ‘you can’t go to university’ that stops a child from attending, rather it’s about increasing the amount of people who are asking: ‘have you considered university or: ‘do you know how to apply university,’ or quite simply: ‘do you know why someone might go to university?’ It’s starting from what some may deem as the ‘basics’ but what remains to others as: the unknown. One of the questions in Peerz Academy’s online introduction to higher education lesson is: ‘Do you think university is only for people whose parents or family members have been?’ This question immediately interferes with any existing assumptions, one’s thought process and opens to floor to discussion and discovery. If a child hasn’t heard of anyone they know attending university then why would they think they should? It’s not in everyone’s instinct to start researching their dream course, specific requirements with a feeling of confidence. Of course, every case varies, but children I’ve worked with have firmly stated they’re not interested in going to university as their parents didn’t so why should they. If all someone is exposed to is conversation about the lovely amount of debt they’re presented with after finishing university, then it’s going to take time, resilience and engaging conversation to allow a child to consider a route that isn’t familiar to them and to have the confidence to go home one day and say: ‘I want to apply to university and I can and this is what I need to do.’

Student finance might seem like a word you’ve heard just too many times, but after mentoring children in Newton Aycliffe and Chester Le Street, it was all new but exciting knowledge to a group of engaged mentees. So, let’s ensure we don’t underestimate the power of talking about what might seem ‘obvious’ and lets remember the power of a single conversation or question. Because, how can we expect every child to know that the £9000 they continuously hear about on the news is paid directly to the educational institution by the government. The simple explanation of this fact has erased so many worries from children I’ve worked alongside. My last encounter with a child I mentored for 6 weeks with NECOP’s ‘Future me’ programme made me realise where the slightest assumption can be made on my own behalf. Happily talking to the child about the fact that by going to university he wouldn’t just be doing a degree, as he’d be learning to live with others, and look after himself he stopped me mid-sentence asking: ‘wait what you get to live at university?’ Having previously zoned out about our discussion on university life as the thought of a ‘lecture’ made him decide it wasn’t the route for him, the new thought of an experience about living, learning and independence had become appealing, and intriguing. Whilst to some its simply obvious that with the university experience comes a wealth of other opportunities, talking through these opportunities specifically specifically is so crucial and so easy, yet should not be underestimated- as it seems in this case one single fact had already got someone re-evaluating their assumptions, and potentially their ambitions for the future.

Credit: Rebecca Winstanley

The power of conversation is changing mindsets, perceptions and crucially- the decisions young people locally are taking towards their future. NECOP, NERAP and Peerz academy have recognised the urge to challenge mindsets, or simply provide further access, insight and information in order to widen participation and inspire all children. The projects and partnerships have acknowledged that it might not be as simple as handing over a leaflet and expecting the child to feel empowered and know where they want to go from there. It’s a marathon, a journey and a life changing process with impact not necessarily occurring overnight- although for some, the life changing moment can happen at any point- after any conversation or piece of knowledge they discover that they once never knew. So next time you see the opportunity to use your voice, to inspire, or challenge or assists- don’t worry about the formalities, please just go for it. Just because you’re not a careers adviser or qualified teacher anyone can widen participation and access; an individual’s experience and voice is enough to inform, engage and inspire someone who could benefit from a deeper insight into the higher education and its opportunities.

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