Transitioning from schools to higher education – A professional’s perspective

By Hannah Ogundipe Akinbode, Research Manager

It’s the start of a new academic year! We are currently welcoming our returning and new cohort of first year undergraduate students. Many of our new intake will need to navigate the difficult  transition from schools to higher education (HE). Back in January I had to navigate a similar transition; from the world of secondary teaching to working at King’s in professional services. Looking back, I underestimated the jump moving from schools would turn out to be, here is what I learnt.

The importance of collaborative learning and colleagues

Having moved from one sphere of education to another, there are a number of HE specific things that I have had to quickly become familiar with, such as: the organisational structure, a number of new and confusing IT systems and a completely different way of working. Similarly, new students will need to get to grips with new systems and structures too. Like me, they’ll be entering a much larger institution, with many un-written rules and its own culture. It’s been a steep learning curve, one made easier with the help of supportive colleagues. For new students, they’ll get the knowledge they need to navigate their new environment from friends and family, and other students. That’s why helping students to make connections is important and is such a core focus of our work.

Get involved

My advice to our new students is ‘get involved’. Be an ambassador or volunteer, your time at university will be all the richer for it. As I’ve settled into King’s and participated in wider projects,  I’ve been able to feel positivity from the impact I’m achieving, and this will be the same for students too. I’ve been impressed by the connections King’s forges within the community, and the opportunities on offer to students to have a positive impact on society during their studies through the King’s Civic Leadership Academy.

I’ve been surprised by the opportunities to contribute to society that I’ve already had through King’s. Building relationships is essential to life and so I really value our motto “people before programmes”, an approach that the KCLWP department has adopted, working with Citizens UK and community organising. One of my first projects was evaluating a Citizens UK project which provided citizenship advice to parents of primary school children. In this project I learnt the power of community organising to help individuals feel empowered. It demonstrated the importance of collaboration and relational power as powerful tools to pass on essential information within a community in order for its members to succeed.

We can’t do it on our own

Coming to HE has been a humbling re-realisation of how much there is to learn. Working in What Works, I continue to learn from those around me. What Works is successful as a team because everyone has their own field which they are an expert in, and no person works on one project alone, each being brought in as their skills are needed. This is a model that can be applied in the wider education sector, as students are the experts in their own experience, and so should be included in the projects, policies and interventions affecting them.

Early on into teaching I realised that learning is most definitely two-way. Although I directed learning in the classroom, I was not, and am not, the fountain of all knowledge.  As research manager in What Works I’ve carried that experience into my role by recognising students mostly know what’s going to help them most so ensuring that research is conducted to understand student feedback, behaviours, and perceptions is essential. It’s my role to make sure that this knowledge is the foundation of project and intervention design.

It’s important to encourage students to reflect on the transition experience and measure what works well and what could be improved about the process to make the transition more seamless. We therefore can’t improve the transition without the input of the students experiencing it. Together with KCLWP, we’re conducting qualitative research into the transition experience of our ‘K+’ widening participation students (those taking part in the two-year long programme and summer school) as they move into university, with the aim of creating an intervention (which we’ll then test) to improve the experience.

It’s a different world, but it’s been worth the journey

My transition from working in schools to a university has not been entirely smooth sailing, however it has been so worthwhile, and I don’t regret it. There are many things I would do differently if I was to go through the process again. I was still in teacher mode a lot of the time, and though I moved, in part, to gain a better work life balance, I found putting this into practice difficult at first. On reflection, I can see several things the team did which helped me adjust, such as buddying me up with another new starter, so I had someone outside the team to share my concerns with and a jump start at building my network. King’s offers similar ‘campus conversations’ with students to help them with the process too.

I’m currently writing up research we conducted this summer with working-class female sixth form students about the factors influencing their decision whether to go to university, I look forward to sharing the results later this year.   It was a real pleasure to speak to those girls, and I hope those that choose to go to university have a smooth transition, perhaps even informed by our research, when their time comes.


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