This Friday is my last day as Head of Midlands for The Access Project five years after I started, and what a five years it has been.

Back in 2014 we had just been awarded a grant from NESTA to set up in the West Midlands, taking our small fledgling charity out of the capital for the first time. As a proud Brummie I relished the challenge to set up and develop this work in our great city – supporting bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to beat the odds and get to university. Having worked for a number of years in campaigns that focused on education and equality this was a way I could make a real difference to improving educational opportunity for local teenagers tackling inequality at a very practical level.

I love Birmingham and the surrounding areas, it’s my home, where my family and friends are and an area with a long and proud history – we have just celebrated our 130th year of becoming a city this week. From the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’, and ‘The Black Country’ so called for the industry that dominated the region, to great thinkers and innovators we have long been a place that attracts new people, different cultures, all becoming proud, if a little understated, Brummies.

Exciting times ahead!

Birmingham is now the European city with the highest proportion of young people. There are major developments happening across the region, from HS2, to the Commonwealth Games and more and and more young people are setting up their own new and innovative practices in design, culture & arts, and civic change. It’s an exciting time to be here.

However alongside all this progress we still have high levels of inequality, high youth unemployment, and poor educational outcomes for some.

Sometimes I hear the question: “what can we do to attract young professionals here?” My answer is and always will be: “look around you, go into any school in the region”. We have a wealth of bright, ambitious and aspirational young people here, ready to make their mark and have their time. They just need a bit of support — such as we offer at The Access Project.

Volunteer tutors that make a difference

Our volunteer tutor model is one things that first drew my attention to the organisation. The opportunity for our students to go into a professional workplace for an hour every week and focus on their academic achievement both broadens their horizons and raises their grades. That hour gives the students a great insight into the world of work, and some important lessons on independence, whilst improving their GCSE grades.

For our tutors it’s an hour a week to do something really impactful. They see in front of their eyes their student growing in confidence, getting better at solving equations, understanding elements or delving into Tudor history, and then the end result of an improved grade and ultimately a place at a top university. Many of our tutors say it’s the best hour of their week, and contributing to their student getting a university place at Durham, Aston, Birmingham or even Browns in the United States, generates a pretty emotional sense of achievement.

Breaking records

This year we have recruited and matched more volunteer tutors than ever before from businesses and universities across Birmingham and the Black Country. I will miss our tutor meet-ups and the chance to find out their ideas for solving knotty physics problems or how they have tackled the poetry anthology. Their commitment and enthusiasm always inspires me and it is heartwarming to know that we still have volunteers who, like me, joined five years ago, and who will carry the torch after I have left.

I will watch from afar, excited to see The Access Project grow and develop and help even more young people in our region to go to the top university that their talent deserves, regardless of their background.