Black History Month: the struggle to be what you can’t see

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Black History Month.

Race & Oxbridge

It’s amazing how one passing comment can change your life. In my case, it was my daughter who casually announced that places like Oxford and Cambridge were not for people like her. There was no emotion in her voice. For her 13-year old mixed white and Afro-Caribbean self, this was just an unquestionable fact. For me, it was a moment of deep sadness that decades after my own university choice reflected my perceptions of where I belonged, here was history repeating itself.

With Insight Education

So, last year I established With Insight Education [1] as a not-for-profit social enterprise, with the goal of changing the racial diversity narrative of the top 1/3 ranked universities. It was my aim to empower black-heritage ‘A’ Level students by boosting their confidence, knowledge and ability, thereby increasing their chances of successfully applying to the top 1/3 universities.

It’s an ambitious impact target as UCAS statistics [2] show that black students consistently have the lowest entry rate to high tariff universities. Lower ‘A’ level attainment undoubtedly contributes to this but it’s not the whole story.  In researching my social venture, a recurring theme from black-heritage pupils was a sense that they would not fit in.  For some, this manifested itself as a worry that they would have to give up their sense of self, “They’ll indoctrinate you and I don’t want to lose my culture.” For others, there was no reassuring points of reference to draw upon, “I can’t really see myself there because I don’t really know many people like me that have gone.”

Insight2Uni, mentor and mentee

The Stormzy effect

It’s a truism that people struggle to be what they can’t see.  Therefore, at the heart of the Insight2Uni mentoring programme that I run is instilling the belief in pupils that black-heritage students do belong in aspirational universities.  This is achieved by training black-heritage university students as their mentors.  This, ‘show, don’t tell,’ approach provides the school pupils with relatable role models who are living proof that people like them have successfully trodden the path to top universities and are thriving there. It’s a simple premise but highly effective.  By the end of their time on the programme, all my mentees feel comfortable to study at a top university.  Looking further afield, the ‘Stormzy effect’ is further proof of the concept. Last year grime artist, Stormzy, announced that he would pay the tuition fees and living costs for two black British students each year for the duration of their study at the University of Cambridge.  As Stormzy said at the time[3], “I hope this scholarship serves as a small reminder that if young black students wish to study at one of the best universities in the world, then the opportunity is yours for the taking.”  The impact of having a relatable figure that demonstrably advocates that black-heritage pupils do belong at top universities is partially credited with the swelling of the 2019 intake of first year black students at the University of Cambridge to 91 (up 50% on the 61 starters in 2018[4]).    

From education to career

Insight2Uni, mentor and mentee

The support offered by Insight2Uni extends beyond tackling self-limiting perceptions.  Over the 10 months that Insight2Uni participants are mentored, they are also helped to broaden their perspective on the degree course options available to them. This is particularly important as the stereotype of black-heritage pupils applying for law, medicine and other degrees that have an obvious link to their chosen career is true.  Unfortunately, this propensity decreases the likelihood of their application being successful as these types of courses are highly competitive.  I recently had a meeting with two lawyers.  One was a music graduate, and the other had read Classics.  The ability to share such education to career journeys with the mentees is a huge positive of the programme, enabling them to grasp that they can study what they love and still pursue their career dreams.  Consequently, 92% say that they are better placed to make fully informed university decisions. 

Lastly, the pupils are given practical support with their UCAS application, including bespoke guidance with their personal statement.  This helping hand is often not available to them at their under-resourced schools in which they are a small fish in a big pond.  Neither are the pupils able to draw on the social capital of their familial networks as many are first generation university applicants whose social circle has only limited knowledge of higher education.   Therefore, providing this support is vital in addressing the uneven university application playing field in which they find themselves.

Life as a social entrepreneur

It’s challenging being a start-up social entrepreneur.  My brain never quite switches off, it’s a steep learning curve and I spend a considerable amount of time camped outside of my comfort zone, but the human stories of my work are hugely motivating.  

Christine Kinnear
Founder & CEO, With Insight Education C.I.C.

In 2018, only 10% of black students started their undergraduate degree at a Russell Group university, a select group of 24 research-intensive universities which consistently rank highly within the top 1/3.  At less than half the percentage of their white and Asian peers, it’s a stark motivator that for some highly capable pupils like Leslie who confessed that, “It was not even on my radar to go to a Russell Group university,” there is an enduring need to disrupt the status quo. 

More often, I am motivated by the knowledge that Insight2Uni has had a life-changing impact on pupils like Arinola who told me that,  “It helped my confidence and with me opening up about my aspirations and goals”; and Heaven, who excitedly updated me that at the behest of her mentor she visited universities outside of London and has now decided to study away from home. 

The future

Ironically, I am working to create a future where there is no need for Insight2Uni.  A future where black-heritage students no longer question if top 1/3 universities are places where they belong.  A future where they no longer need to be brave to consider accessing an excellent education from some of the world’s leading universities.  With one cohort having gone through the programme, I’m thrilled that 83% secured places at top 1/3 universities, taking us closer to this panacea.  That is a cohort of young people that now have a greater chance of securing professional employment, striding up the social mobility ladder and, importantly, creating an inspiring new narrative for those that follow behind them. 



Christine Kinnear

Christine Kinnear

Christine Kinnear

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