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Bringing medicine within REACH

Photo caption: Erica, Sophie, Orla, Rudi and Blane from the University of Glasgow’s Widening Access to Medicine Society, who all went through the Reach programme.

2 Apr 2019

Last year the University of Glasgow made the headlines when it revealed nearly 20 percent of Scottish entrants to its School of Medicine were from the most deprived areas of Scotland – numbers that were touted as unprecedented among the UK’s 34 medical schools.

Four of the five students featured in this coverage, who came through the University’s own Glasgow Access Programme, got an early start to medicine through the REACH programme – one of two national schools programmes funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

Funded by SFC since 2010, the REACH programme works with schools in Scotland’s most deprived communities to identify potential student candidates for study in Law, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry and Economics.

Widening Access perspective

Dr Neill Croll, Head of Widening Access at the University of Glasgow can still remember being called to a meeting at SFC in 2010 with colleagues from around Scotland to discuss a pilot programme to help disadvantaged students get through medicine.

“My first reaction was to wonder what the academic schools would think of it. Programmes like this had been attempted before, but they hadn’t really achieved much because they hadn’t been set up with much thought to what the real barriers or gaps were”.

Dr Croll says the difference this time is the academic schools are fully behind the programme, and the partnerships they have with secondary schools are more effective as a result.

“Our team has a good partnership with the academic schools but school support is absolutely crucial as well. We have contact teachers for each of the schools we’re in and they’re a key link between us and pupils, because it’s the teachers we rely on to identify who’s got potential. They know their pupils and the programme has performed very well because of that link.”

The initial stages of the programme involved about six months of discussion with authorities and schools to get them on board with the programme and see what kind of involvement would be feasible, he says.

“From these discussions we were able to start working with S4/S5/S6 students across four subjects at the University, and the result has been participants from these courses successfully studying these subjects here.”

In 2017 the first cohort of REACH medical entrants at the University of Glasgow graduated and their performance “completely busts” any old myths about adjusted offers, he says.

“Our graduates this year performed exactly at the same level as those coming from more affluent areas. Now the professional schools are saying the quality of graduates has actually increased, because there’s that much more diversity in the student cohort, which better prepares graduates when they go out to practice medicine in a diverse world.

Croll says REACH has also made an impact on schools and local authorities. Those that might have doubted the programme changed their belief system once they saw pupils succeeding where they hadn’t previously, giving them confidence to encourage the next generation to follow.

“If something is working then word gets round pretty quick – even more quickly, if it’s not.”

Student perspective

Orla Macpherson became involved with the REACH programme after deciding in secondary school that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

“Around my third year I started to think about what I wanted to do. I’d seen a few documentaries and thought it would be amazing to do medicine. It’s a career where you continue to learn and develop even when you’ve finished university and I enjoyed biology and science subjects at school.”

Through the REACH programme Orla attended two to three workshops per year that were focused around supporting her application to study medicine at the University, and ensuring she was on track to get the required grades.

“Probably the highlight of those workshops for me was the summer school programme, which is hosted at the university for a week. It coincides with the university’s general Open Day so as well as getting shown around you’re also getting to see lots of mini-lectures from doctors in different specialities.”

“You meet a wide variety of people from both medical and non-medical backgrounds who share different perspectives with you about studying medicine, and even just what university life is like, which is really useful.”

The programme also helps students prepare for required tests like the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT). This can be a particular barrier for students who don’t come from schools or families well-acquainted with the process of applying to medical schools, and who are unlikely to have anyone to explain the application process or even how to prepare for the test.

“It’s not very well known – it was never mentioned at school and the fee ranges from £65 to £87. That’s not something everyone can afford straight up, but a REACH tutor can help in terms of discussing payment options with you like the bursary scheme, on top of the interview preparation workshop they provide.”

That makes a huge difference she says, because while the information might be out there it’s not always clear where to look.

“Probably the best part of the programme is having that person to touch base with you.

Someone who can provide that information, support and encouragement to keep you going the whole way – from the decision to study medicine to the application process,” she says.

“You always know you’ve got someone supporting you and that’s really important if nobody else in your school or family has done something like this before.”

Barriers are different for every student, and some still struggle around expectations to be on full-time placement and keep up with studying and coursework through their fourth and fifth years, particularly those who need to work to support family or have significant travel costs, but support services and financial aid is also available through the University.

Orla says there’s still work to be done to reach those who have the most barriers to higher education and access to medicine, but the programme is making great progress. Now in her third year of medicine at Glasgow, she has returned the favour by helping out with the REACH workshops she benefitted from and is actively involved in campus events as student mentor and other related activities and societies within medicine. “It’s just great to be able to help out and give back,” she says.

Teacher perspective

REACH pupils at St Peter the Apostle High School in West Dumbartonshire.From a roll of around 1600 at St Peter the Apostle High School in West Dumbartonshire, roughly 50-60 pupils put themselves forward for the REACH programme each year, says Mick Dolan.

A teacher for 40 years, Mick is the local school coordinator for the REACH programme and part of his role involves promoting the programme to young people.

“Our role is to invite the kids to show an interest and take part. REACH makes a substantial difference in getting them into university, but even so the work required of them is substantial in itself. So there is still a bit of a filtering process, because we always want to students be engaged in the programme that’s right for them.”

REACH provides students with a real awareness of what they’re getting themselves in for, he says.

“We do have a number of kids who make an informed choice not to continue, but that in itself is a plus because if studying law is not going to engage you, then it’s far better to find that out in school.”

Those who go through take part in organised tutor sessions in-school, with assistance from the University. Tutors guide them through the programme and they have to complete a short assignment targeted at getting them to focus on what the subject area is focused on and how they see themselves developing.

The programme continues with a university visit in the first year but Mick says the second year is most significant, when pupils continue with school sessions and an assignment towards a week spent at the university in June.

“That week at the university really crystallises all their ambition and helps give them all the information they need to complete their UCAS application in sixth year.”

Beyond helping students into these subjects, the programme delivers a number of wider benefits, he says.

“First of all it creates an ambitious group of achievers. Children begin to find each other in a way they may not have in a big school, all expressing a determination to do well. That benefits us as a school and their wider peer group benefit from having a group of pupils expressing a definite intention to do very best that they can.”

He also speaks highly of the University’s widening access team.

“The team who run the programme are very supportive and always willing to help and engage with pupils. They’re not just there as administrators but are very actively engaged with the kids – they know what their ambitions are, what their essay submissions are like, and how they’re engaging with the programme.

“Neil [Croll] and Scott [Iguchi-Sherry, Senior REACH Programme Coordinator] have been two key factors. Neil has a very grounded vision of what the programme should do in the way of support for kids and Scott’s day-to-day engagement with it is fantastic.

Having taught for 40 years, he believes the success of the programme speaks for itself.

“When I started teaching here it was an absolute rarity to have a pupil accepted for medicine. The year that my son finished we had two people go into medicine, two in dentistry, four in law and one in veterinary medicine. That would’ve been absolutely unheard of before the REACH programme – it’s opened up doors for kids in a way that’s never been done before.”

Mick says one of the programme’s big successes is seeing kids who go through finish their courses.

“That in itself is really significant for me because I live and work locally. So, for a number of years it was a big frustration bumping into able kids I’d taught, only to discover they’d given up on the course they’d started out on.”

“For me now to be talking to kids studying these subjects at university is really quite rewarding.”