The University of Derby holds a two-day transition event for incoming disabled students called ‘Get Ahead’.
The event has been running for 15 years, and is now attended by over 100 students each year. The aims of the event are to improve the transition of disabled students, increase sense of belonging, aspiration and confidence and as a result improve retention and academic achievement.
Activities include the option to move into university accommodation early at no extra cost, a one-to-one meeting with the student’s programme academic and workshops on managing transition successfully and using support effectively. The event uses trained, paid student mentors, who are all previous Get Ahead attendees. They are supported to submit a formal application and undertake an interview.
Derby has evaluated the event through feedback taken at the time, focus groups in the weeks after the event and by monitoring data about the performance and retention of disabled students. The findings were very positive: Derby has gaps between disabled and non-disabled students far smaller than the sector average in retention and academic attainment.
Evaluation of Get Ahead identified two groups of disabled students who weren’t benefitting as much from the event as their peers: students with specific learning differences (SPLDs) and students with autism. Derby developed additional transition support to target these students.
‘Forward Thinking’ is a programme of transition support for students with SPLDs. It takes a neurodiversity-based approach to increase confidence, independence and belonging, and thereby improve learning and engagement. It includes a one-day event before arrival and a series of workshops during term. Initial evaluation has emphasised the importance of tackling anxiety around academic learning for students with SPLDs and the benefits of taking a neurodiversity approach for increasing students’ sense of belonging.
‘The Bridge’ is a programme of transition support for students with autism. It includes a range of support prior to arrival, including support to attend Get Ahead and Open Days, an additional summer school event and training for academic staff and the co-development of strategies to better support the academic performance of individual students. Initial evaluation has been very positive: withdrawal rates have gone from 30% to 6%, while the number of students with autism joining the university has increased significantly.
Learning points and reflections
Feedback on Get Ahead identified three key elements of the programme that were important to students: socialisation, familiarisation and the opportunity to complete practical tasks and set up support early. Ensuring that disabled students have safe, structured opportunities to begin socialising is extremely important to support their transition to university.
One of the unexpected benefits of the work on Forward Thinking was that taking a neurodiversity approach resulted in students identifying that Derby understood them as individuals. This increased students’ sense of belonging and reduced imposter syndrome.