Parental engagement – a new approach in Sussex

By Fay Lofty, Schools Liaison Manager, Sussex Learning Network (NCOP)

The Sussex NCOP consortia SLN:COP is piloting a new approach to working with parents and carers of children attending school in target wards. The approach is a peer-to-peer method with parents and carers who have children at the school and who are also supporting older children at university being appointed and trained as Parent and Carer HE Ambassadors. The aim of the ambassadors is to be utilised in school, in the community and at other events to connect and engage with parents who might have concerns about choosing a university, supporting their children in the application process and the ever-present fear of student finance. Their role is not to give advice but to share their own experiences and to signpost to sources of support and information.

My interest in parental engagement started as an outreach worker several years ago when parents were rarely consulted about their children being on a widening participation programmes. They often didn’t know their children were on programmes or why and very little consideration was given to how they felt about being targeted for programmes based on a set of criteria mostly located in assumed parental deficit. This interest led me to undertake a research-based MA in Education Studies with a widening participation focus to more fully explore this topic. The findings allowed me to change my practice as a widening participation practitioner but also to broaden the programme I worked on to include an increased and more nuanced approach to working with parents. These findings and the work of other widening participation practitioners has recently been published in a paper on the under-tapped potential of widening participation practitioners (Gazeley, Lofty, Longman and Squire, 2018).

Since the research was undertaken, there has been a groundswell of parental engagement on widening participation programmes with the Year One NCOP report (HEFCE, 2018) citing it as being key. Many widening participation programmes and NCOP consortia are working hard to engage parents and carers of children selected for NCOP and other programmes to ensure they are fully informed and can support their children in making informed choices.

The SLN:COP Parent and Carer HE Ambassador programme take a fresh and innovative approach with the peer-to-peer model providing an alternative to a top-down model which implies deficit and creates barriers of its own. The programme is in a very early stage with seventeen parents set up across Sussex.  With the support of schools, they have attended parents evenings and will soon be organising coffee mornings and attending other community events. Local universities’ widening participation programmes will be making use of the ambassadors at large scale events. 

I recently discovered that not only are the ambassadors sharing their experiences with other parents, they’ve formed their own support network for each other. One ambassador stated ‘I thought it was only my child who was struggling to settle in at university and now I’ve discovered it’s not just us, its other families too’.  They intend to broaden this out and will be inviting other parents of students at university from a widening participation background to join them.

Last week several of the ambassadors attended an SLN:COP forum intended to bring together teachers, widening participation teams, colleges and other stakeholders and partners. Their insight was invaluable and their contribution was both thoughtful and thought-provoking. When asked if they’d like to speak about the project, one ambassador said ‘I’m just amazed – I thought I was alone in supporting my son to get to university and there’s a whole room full of people here doing just that.’  It would seem that the groundswell has come a long way.


Gazeley, Lofty, Longman and Squire (2018). Undertapped potential: practitioner research as a vehicle for widening participation. Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2018.1441386

HEFCE (2018). National Collaborative Outreach Programme Year one report of the national formative and impact evaluation, including capacity building with NCOP consortia

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