Last week I felt hugely privileged to give the keynote speech at The Brilliant Club’s tutor training weekend. For the uninitiated, The Brilliant Club delivers university style tutorials to small groups of pupils, enhancing academic skills and knowledge, in order to widen access to highly selective universities. The theme of the weekend ‘what does The
Brilliant Club mean to you?’ gave me the opportunity to re-examine my thoughts… and for me, it’s all in the name.
Brilliant. It’s there, defined unashamedly from the outset; the aim of the organisation is to nurture brilliance, to actively seek it and to reward it. Love of learning, pride in knowledge and prestige around academic attainment in the state system is so often overlooked in favour of the nebulous pursuit of ‘cool.’ Schools have responded to perceived student distaste for learning by disguising it with games, endorsing this attitude and shying away from confronting the power of knowledge. The Brilliant Club embraces knowledge, with an army of PhD tutors as their secret weapon, bringing research to life and giving a face to university progression. Ross talks about cloning mammoths and ancient DNA, Izabella about Ebola and geochemistry. They love their subjects. My pupils love being on the ‘cutting edge of research’ and sharing this learning. They love that Ross studied at the University of Oxford, they ask Izabella about her experiences of her PhD at Durham. Brilliant has a name and a face, it has a meaningful progression pathway and it is real. The link between being brilliant and opportunity is demonstrated not only by their tutors, but in their own progress as part of the programme. Pupils work hard and they are rewarded; marks for essays are given in undergraduate style and parents and carers are invited to a graduation ceremony to celebrate their achievements. I tell them it may be their first graduation but it won’t be their last… and they agree. They aspire to be brilliant and they understand why. The connection between their hard work and attainment now, and the opportunities for progression later are clear.
Club. Defined as, ‘an organisation for people with a common purpose or interest.’ The idea of bringing like minded people together is an inherently appealing one. So is the binary concept of being either ‘in’ or ‘out’. For many of disadvantaged pupils, they’re ‘out’ of most of the clubs we know about. Research from The Sutton Trust suggests that they’re probably ‘out’ of the A Level club. Odds on, they’re ‘out’ of the Higher Education club and they’re almost definitely ‘out’ of the highly selective university club, along with all the implications these clubs may have for their future. The Brilliant Club however, offers them an opportunity to be ‘in’; for once to be the right side of the divide. It brings them together under the common purpose of the aforementioned brilliant and it gives them a tangible sense of what it feels like to be there. Progression is partly about attainment; the ‘being brilliant’, but it is fundamentally underpinned by the desire to become part of a very specific and, for many illusive, club. University after all, is the very definition of a club.
Research tells us that fewer than 2% of children on Free School Meals progress to a highly selective university, compared to 48% of their privately educated counterparts. Those same universities are those most targeted by graduate employers and it is therefore hardly surprising that our professions are dominated by private school graduates; three quarters of the top judiciary went to private schools and sixty percent of top doctors. More clubs our disadvantaged pupils cannot join. Whilst I do not think that university is – or ought to be – for everyone, it should be a club that anyone can join. The statistics show that is simply not the case. Attainment is restricted by the desire not to be ‘nerdy’, aspiration limited by a lack of understanding as to what university progression could mean.
The Brilliant Club challenges both these issues. Moreover, it confronts them head on, in schools across the UK. As I stood in front of the mass of tutors, some returning after several years of involvement, others for their first placement, I saw the true power of the movement. Every tutor represented 12, 24, 36 pupils in state schools across the country, every tutor represented an opportunity for more disadvantage children to progress to highly selective universities. I am proud to be a part of this most important of clubs.