Nona McDuff OBE and Krishna Maroo discuss ‘Widening Access and Participation’

23 March, 2023

Nona McDuff OBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Solent University and Saturday Club Trust Special Advisor, is a nationally recognised expert on widening participation, diversity and inclusion. Krishna Maroo, Outreach Manager at the University of West London, has been a Club tutor for six years and became a Saturday Club Trust Trustee in 2022. Here they talk to Rachael Moloney about how the National Saturday Club is working to increase access and widen participation, and the significant potential of the programme to reach an even greater number of young people.

Rachael Moloney (RM): Nona and Krishna, thank you for joining me to talk about this fundamental remit of the National Saturday Club. Krishna, could you tell us about your experience running Saturday Clubs within the context of widening access and participation? 

Krishna Maroo (KM): At the University of West London, we have purely widening access criteria for our Saturday Clubs and have embedded them into our Access and Participation Plan. That is the case for a growing number of Clubs across the country. We run ours in this way to engage young people who we would traditionally find hard to reach. We love that Saturday Clubs are free to join, and we also cover food and travel costs for our members.  

Saturday Clubs put in place a programme that is designed to be experiential and to offer members activities they cannot access at school. For us, a Saturday Club is about opening doors and saying to young people: ‘You absolutely have the right to be involved in this kind of project – come and learn something new with us.’ It’s about encouraging young people to think wider and to take up a space that is not usually available to them.

RM: Nona, how do you feel the National Saturday Club’s objectives in this respect reflect the bigger picture nationally? 

Nona McDuff (NM): First, I would like to talk about what widening participation is. From my perspective in higher education, it’s about ensuring that all those who have the ability have the opportunity to benefit, irrespective of their background. You can see in the data that some groups of students are not entering higher education because they don’t have the choices to do so. Eighteen-year-olds from the most advantaged groups remain 2.4 times (footnote?) more likely to enter university than their most disadvantaged peers. And they are 6.3 times (footnote?) more likely to attend one of the most selective institutions in the UK. Widening participation is about widening access as well as participation, and success on leaving. If you look at it in terms of the whole journey, from children through to young people, students and graduates, and look at choice to do the things you want, we are really talking about a definition of social mobility. Having graduated from university, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go into professional jobs and they are more likely to be paid less. Somewhere along the line, we have to look at where hope, aspiration and self-belief in your ability to step onto the next rung of the ladder builds. 

I feel the focus needs to be earlier on in the educational journey, giving young people the opportunity to engage with things they would not have engaged with at school. This helps them gain confidence to start and finish something; to make friends; to access higher education spaces and to feel they have understood what a higher-education environment looks like. Then, when they start their higher education – remember it’s about access and carrying through – they are more likely to have a sense of belonging and to feel they matter. Therefore, they are more likely to stay, to understand the short cuts in studying and to start thinking about jobs.  

RM: The points you make about young people having this very rounded experience early on, which is necessary to change minds and raise aspirations, would you say these are inbuilt in the National Saturday Club’s ethos and programme? 

NM: Yes, because if you look at the hallmarks of good engagement – offering genuine and authentic opportunities, where young people are able to engage in a meaningful way – they are there. In the Saturday Club programme, young people experience learning by doing, making friends by doing, developing their confidence by doing. If you consider universities that run transition programmes with care leavers, they bring the care leavers in early and start creating a sense of understanding with them about how the rules work. You can see these students are more likely to succeed and stay on the programme if they’ve had that experience. That’s what I see the National Saturday Club providing – a good foundation to make young people feel, in a practical way, that they can see themselves in those spaces and feel comfortable, because they’ve already worked with tutors. That really starts to break down the barriers they may face, like feeling disconnected from this world of privilege.   

And, importantly, in a Saturday Club, they learn to form relationships with other young people. Going back to Krishna’s point, the Saturday Club is also free for them. If it were paid for, some students would not be able to take part. 

KM: Nona, I want to pick up on a couple of your points. I think we often underestimate how powerful it is for young people to be around inspiring, engaging professionals, or adults who aren’t their parents or teachers; and to come into a different kind of learning environment. Some of the young people I work with in Clubs have 45-50 minutes of a lesson where they are exploring something their school simply doesn’t have the capacity to support. We know creative learning in schools is always on the firing line and that’s also why Saturday Clubs are powerful. I would love to see a Saturday Club in every area in the country because the model works.  

RM: Nona, what would your comment be on the current widening participation impact of the National Saturday Club, and its ambitions within the context of national government policy? 

NM: They’re doing something right, because they’ve increased their percentage of young people from widening participation backgrounds from 46% to 81% in the past four years. That’s impressive. They have been asking partner institutions to actively diversify their pool of people and get greater widening participation, and I see that strategy playing out in the numbers. Within the widening participation sub-categories, I know the evaluation identifies where improvements have been made, such as an increase in members with a disability and those who receive free school meals, for example.  

I would challenge where the National Saturday Club needs to go in terms of recruiting more black and male students. For 2021-22, there are 28% of Club members identifying as male. I’d like to see more young white males from lower socio-economic backgrounds being engaged. Black males are traditionally under-represented in higher education, and those who do go on to higher education are not doing as well as their white counterparts. I think the work needs to start earlier on, in a programme like the National Saturday Club. Its ethos of opening doors and raising aspirations is incredibly important, especially for the ethnic and gender groups who are under-represented, according to the statistics.  

I have talked about social mobility deliberately because the UK has very poor statistics around this compared with Europe. The UK’s industrial strategy is that by diversifying the workforce we will have better think-tanks, which are being drained here at the moment. In terms of the Levelling Up agenda, where Saturday Clubs are held will be key. Are they in locations where levelling up is needed?  

RM: The National Saturday Club’s subject offering is expanding; two Clubs added recently are Film&Media and Society&Change, which is being delivered in partnership with Chatham House. Is that pointing in the right direction, in terms of reaching more young people and different educational and industry sectors?    

KM: It’s given the National Saturday Club a breadth that it didn’t have before.  

I believe the scope of a subject like Society&Change gives us the opportunity to collaborate with more local organisations, and to look at issues like sustainability – a subject area linked to so many types of learning. The output may be ‘creative’, but the scope of the subject means we will attract a broader pool of Club members.  

‘Change’ really speaks to a lot of young people. They’ve been through a lot in the past few years. The issues around what the world is going to look like in future are issues they have faced since they were small. It’s going to be up to them to opt in and say, ‘I love having my say’; ‘I love getting involved’; ‘I love contributing to something bigger.’ And then it’s up to us to match that with our creative and academic offer. I think this new Club will be a good leveller and I’m hopeful we’ll see more Clubs engage with it.  

RM: Nona, would you agree that for potential partner institutions, stressing that the National Saturday Club’s learning model advocates a creative and critical approach to numerous subjects is a strong point, with regard to widening access?

NM: Most professions now need creative skills, so creativity is highly valued: the new idea, the new adaptation, the new way of thinking. For example, as AI is integrated into all industries we will need employees to come from a background where from day dot they have been thinking about creativity in their field. I am so glad this has come up, because I think everybody is creative. I also believe the Club curriculum should be about developing critical thinking. This will benefit young people because it will give them useful tools, beyond the ability to question fake news or to challenge information they’re getting. And this needs to start very young. 

KM: A key point is that for over half of Saturday Club participants from a widening participation background, this is their only extra-curricular activity. For us to be able to give them a sense of agency when they’re with us, which they can take back to school and apply, or take outside the classroom is incredibly valuable. 

NM: I agree. It goes back to the aims of the National Saturday Club. For me, it’s about adding value on a journey, a journey that is different for everyone. When people discuss social mobility, it’s often about the big steps, such as a dustman’s daughter becoming a lawyer. Actually, social mobility is sometimes about little steps, but they are very meaningful steps for the person and very meaningful for their communities.  

KM: I agree. I am very interested in the ‘What next?’. I’ve met many young people who have gone on to do amazing things after being involved in a Saturday Club. We need to tell their stories, because they will be carrying through a creative-thinking and creative-learning approach to working.  

RM: Where do you both place the widening access and participation aims of the National Saturday Club in the broader context of your respective sectors? 

KM: The National Saturday Club is a golden ticket for widening participation practitioners. There are lots of institutions where some staff don’t have project management experience. If they are asked to look at a project for 13–16-year-olds and there is a ready-made format that you can put your own institutional spin on, with all the programming and scaffolding ideas you need in place, that is a hugely valuable opportunity.  

For me, the more people we empower to understand the National Saturday Club, and that includes institutions, and the communities and the families that we engage with, the more young people we can help with their next steps. Giving young people something they are proud of – and that’s not to diminish anything they are doing at school – is powerful. Non-school achievement is life-changing for so many young people. 

NM: I think in higher education, we know the direction in which we want to go, we just don’t know how to get there sometimes. As a well-constructed programme that you can lift off the shelf and adapt to the nuances of your own institution, and the targets and measures you want to demonstrate success in, the National Saturday Club is a good fit. As Krishna said, it’s really powerful to have a project that’s been planned and managed for you. I think in higher education that is exactly what we need. We are not all project managers. Here you have a framework that guides you through it, and gives the people who are delivering it the personal development they need. You are set up for success.  

RM: What personal reflections do you have on your involvement with the National Saturday Club, and its widening access and participation achievements? 

KM: I don’t think I would have become Outreach Manager in a team if I hadn’t had this evidence base of impactful widening participation work, through projects such as the National Saturday Club. I think my institution takes me more seriously, because I am now recognised externally as someone who advocates for widening participation in the creative arts – so much so that I am now on different boards, and I recently became a Saturday Club Trust Trustee. I have grown in confidence. In terms of personal development, the National Saturday Club has been vital work for me. 

RM: Looking forward, what do you both see as key to the National Saturday Club helping more young people aspire to and achieve a fulfilling educational and career journey in their lives? 

KM: Widening access and participation work is something I am passionate about, and we could all be doing much more, nationally, to reach more young people. My intention at the National Saturday Club is to really push the great progress that has already been made. 

NM: The National Saturday Club is a really good way to deliver the government’s agenda around access to higher education. I also think its activities are key because it is now engaging young people in broader issues such as politics and economic recovery. This creates engaged people, and that is what we want to benefit society as a whole. The point Krishna made about dealing with big issues like sustainability and equality and diversity is crucial, as these are globally significant topics. I think the National Saturday Club is equipping students to take their place in society and to have meaningful, informed conversations. That’s why I stress it’s about young people feeling important enough; important enough to have those conversations. That is really something we should celebrate. 

This article first appeared in the National Saturday Club’s 2021-22 Annual Review
Features edited by Rachael Moloney

All News


Support a creative education programme

Stay in touch

Sign up for the National Saturday Club newsletter