Professor Dame Madeleine Atkins became the ninth President of Lucy Cavendish College, the fastest-growing constituent college at the University of Cambridge, in October 2018. Her background includes reading Law and History as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, teaching history in a large high school in Huntingdon, UK, and completing a Ph.D. and post-doctoral research contracts at the University of Nottingham.
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“…diversity means you have a seat at the table. Inclusion means you have a legitimate voice. Your background is not a ‘bar’ to having a legitimate voice. Quite the reverse, but neither of those works without belonging. Without belonging, it doesn’t work. Belonging means I am not afraid as a student for my voice to be heard. You need all three together in the culture to enable students from these diverse backgrounds to actually thrive.”
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How Lucy Cavendish College Is Opening Doors to Students
Many schools do a pretty good job about thinking, how do we open more doors for our students in the future? Today’s conversation is interesting because the University of College over in the United Kingdom is asking a different type of opening door question, which is, how do we open doors to our kids coming into our school? And I really like that, You know, it’s a bit of a reframe. It’s another perspective, another way of looking at how to serve our students and how to serve students at a high level. And most importantly, as you’ll come to find out through the conversation, how do we serve students that need the most help? Right? And there’s some really cool things going on across the pond as we like to say. Hey, it’s Danny, and welcome to the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, which means you invest in continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school now. We’ll be right back after some messages from our show sponsors.
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Thank you for the invitation. I’m really looking forward to it.
It’s my pleasure. Madeline, you are the president of a prestigious college. What does it look like to open doors to underserved students at Cambridge University’s Lucy Cavendish College?
The first thing to understand is that we were set up as Lucy Cavendish College precisely to open the doors to Cambridge University for students with exceptional outstanding potential and talent. We’ve been doing that for 57 years. And to do that requires three things. First, it’s working closely with high schools in areas which are themselves underserved. I’ve been a high school teacher, so that’s not something that phases me particularly so that they can help us identify who these young people might be. We understand what really helps those schools to bring on those young people in the last two years of their time in high school. The second thing that we have learned to do is to rip up the rule book of how you do outreach, as we call it in the UK.
And start with the lifestyle and life experiences of these young people and develop a program in the last two years of their high school that really means they can join something that is relevant, that works for them. These are often kids who are in one parent families. They may have caring responsibilities for sure they have part-time jobs, and that’s important for the family income. The idea, for example, that they would come on a residential two week course at Cambridge is nonsense. There’s no way that they can do that. We’ve gotta find new ways of reaching those young people. The pandemic actually helped us because we realized we could put together a fantastic online program that was much, much easier for these young people to access and be part of.
Through that program, we can help raise their grades. This is all about attainment, academic attainment, raising these young people’s grades so that they make the offer that Cambridge University has as its standard offer. And we never as a college, lower grades just because somebody comes from a disadvantaged background. Those are the first two things that are really important for us. The third thing, as I’m sure you will ask, is what do we do when we’ve got them here so that they thrive? So that, I think, is an essential part of this too.
A lot of organizations, universities, colleges, schools and districts as well in the states have initiatives where they want to champion equity and create these inclusive environments. I was talking to some guests, I forget the name at this point, but the idea that was new for me to think about is, “Okay, you could put in all that hard work to attract and say, ‘You belong here. We value you. We would love to add you to the team, but what do you do when they get there?'” Right? It’s real, day to day, right? It’s the operations, it’s the work. People need to feel an even greater sense of belonging, I think, at that point to wanna stick around. So that’s my long way of saying, all right, you’re doing outreach, as you call it, and you’re opening the doors. And now students that are underserved are making their way to campus or to your programs. How do you meet them where they’re at now that they’re a part of the program?
Yeah. That is absolutely central. You are completely right about that. Several things that we have learned to do. We have an active research program with our students, and they are co-researchers in that program. That’s a pretty important part of what we do. So first off we address what is known in our system as the imposter syndrome. Students who believe, “Oh my goodness everybody around me is brighter than I am. I shouldn’t really be at Cambridge. I better work 24/7 by 365. I’m gonna let my family down if I don’t do brilliantly.” We start from day one, addressing those issues and effectively saying to our students, No don’t wrap up your background and tape it up and put it away in an attic or a cellar.
Stand tall. You have come into Cambridge University, which is a globally significant university on grades as good as everybody else and this is the important bit. Your background, your experiences are valid, and please draw on them in the contributions you make in small group teaching and seminars, in the way you tackle the academic work you are given in the topics you choose to focus on for your research projects. We need and value your diversity of experience and your contribution , along with everybody else’s, makes for deep learning for everybody. It’s not just you who absolutely deserve your place here. Please stand tall. It’s also, we really want your perspectives, your values, your analysis of what it is you are learning. Please be free to contribute that if I’m, may I just gloss that a little bit.
Of course. These words of diversity and inclusion which we all use, you’re quite right. If I was trying to sum that up for Lucy Carnage College in Cambridge, I’d say the following that diversity means you have a seat at the table. Inclusion means you have a legitimate voice. Your background is not a bar to having a legitimate voice. Quite the reverse, but neither of those works without belonging. And without belonging, it doesn’t work. Belonging means I am not afraid as a student for my voice to be heard. And I think you need all three together in the culture to enable students from these diverse backgrounds to actually thrive. Part of my answer. Of course, you also have to put in support programs. May I say a little about that too?
We’d love to hear about support because the Ruckus Maker that’s listening at a metacognitive level, they’re not running a college or a university, they’re running a local school, but they want to implement. The great ideas and what works for you might work for them.
Tell us. We run three support programs for all our students, graduates and undergraduates, both. Differentiated. First of all it’s inevitable, and I know having been a high school teacher, that many of our students who come from schools in really difficult socioeconomic areas may not have had the full range of teaching that students coming in from very privileged backgrounds get. One of the things we do is we run an academic skills program alongside their course, their major, which picks up any kind of aspect of their learning, which hasn’t been covered. Let me give you an example. Statistics. Quite a few of our students come from schools where maybe the statistics haven’t been covered particularly deeply or they know about a few tests that can be applied, but they don’t really understand what the power of those tests is and what the limit of the usefulness of those tests is.
We put on a workshop and they can come along and take that workshop and then that helps them. And that’s for those who are studying medicine or biology or social science subjects or mathematics courses, or loads of subjects that require some understanding of stats. So there’s an example, academic skills. Then we do take well-being very seriously. I think every school, high school, every college across the US and the UK face these same issues. We try to tackle upstream the life, lifestyle and life skills that mean our students are both physically and mentally healthy as they go through their three or four years as an undergraduate, or a year as a graduate. The last of the support programs is careers and enterprise. The characteristics we look for in an applicant include those with an enterprising mind because we know that they have resilience, that they will take advice, that they will change what they’re doing, where that’s necessary, that they will persevere and so on.
An enterprising mindset is great. And for many of our students, they’ve had a side hustle back in school, in their school time, and they’re actually quite interested in setting up companies or joining small companies and so on. Careers and enterprise is the third support program we put in place. Thanks to some benefactors, we also have funds that we can say to our students,” Okay, make the most of being at Cambridge University. If you want to go and join a club or society or play in a sports team or whatever, we’ll help you financially with the cost of that.” We advise all our students to do at least one thing that pushes your envelope, that pushes your safe space. Go out there and make some friends and get your networks in place for after graduation and so on. Don’t just sit in your room and study, study, study. There is more to being at Cambridge than that.
I really like that last point too, in terms of the enterprising. And it sounds really like personalized learning or at least understanding where your students are coming from, understanding what drives them, their passions, meeting them where they’re at, and then really amplifying or fanning that flame you might speak. They have an excitement about some kind of area. And here you are saying, “Okay, let’s go do it. Let’s see what happens. What’s an experiment we can run and what if it works?” That’s brilliant. I appreciate you sharing it. An answer or two ago in our conversation you mentioned this idea of being a co-researcher. I remember from the intro call there was some kind of project we were involved in. Maybe it was two days or something like that but it was co researching with the students. Do you mind setting the context? Bring us to one of those moments. Talk about what you found out.
Yeah. Thank you. So this really goes back to when I did my own PhD because I spent a year immersed in a college of 16 to 18 year olds, literally living it alongside them. I learned so much from that. Here we are at Lucy Cavendish College, and this last year we decided to run a research program with a selection that was voluntary as it were, of our new first year students who came from the most diverse range of backgrounds that we had. And they kept diaries and we had workshops and all sorts of different ways of engaging with them and every month. And they told us what it was really like being at Lucy Cabage College and being at Cambridge. And what surprised them, was what their expectations had been because we did this before they came and then carried it through the first year.
What held them back in that year, What actually helped them to settle in quickly, what excited them intellectually, what excited them socially, what they wished they’d known before they’d come. We used that both academically. They became co contributors to articles in academic journals. They are publishers and they presented, co-presented at academic conferences and so on. But in terms of the impact on the college, we got them to present to our governing body, our trustees. We got them to report to the kind of management team, our team that takes responsibility for the college overall day to day. And from that, we have identified a program now going into place that will mitigate, remediate, and amplify the positives that they identified. And some of the things, of course, were hard to hear. We thought we’d been doing a really good job about X.
Actually they said, “No, no, you haven’t got that quite right. What we really wanted was this.” We discovered, for example, that very few of them could actually cook. Now we have, as a college, fantastic Kitchens. Students share their housemates, they share individual rooms, but they share in a group, a group kitchen and so on. They’re fantastic, the best, some of the best in Cambridge. But actually students were finding it difficult to know how do I cook a nutritious meal for $1 50 to use US currency for a moment with my flatmates. Actually, I dunno where to start. Didn’t know how to kinda shop in a market. If we have a fabulous market in Cambridge, it’s very cheap. But you actually do have to know a bit about how to do that.
Some of the really basic things, we weren’t, we weren’t touching at all. We just assumed knowledge, skills, life skills. We’re, we’re addressing that. When the new intake comes in the two weeks time, one of the things we’ll do is have cooking sessions where they will be challenged with a small budget in their groups, household groups to prepare a meal. We’ll make it a fun event and a fun competition and so on. And actually draw up some ideas of how you might budget for a month living in a college environment in Cambridge University. And that might sound a bit silly in some ways, but it’s one of the things that came up. Now, there are other things that we’re doing where they’re saying, Yep, we need more of this. And what you did was fine, but you kind of missed this aspect of our academic knowledge that we didn’t have and so on, which, which again, we can deal with. It’s that really getting, getting that kind of day to day feedback, I don’t think there’s a substitute for that. And it’s taught us a lot.
I think, as a leader, you need these feedback loops. You need to be willing to go to the people you serve, to ask the tough questions and be ready to hear sometimes the things you think you’re doing well and need to be improved. You’re gonna find out stuff like the kitchen challenge. How do I budget, How do I shop at the market? How do I prepare something nutritious and hopefully delicious, Right? You just said nutritious. Hopefully it tastes okay too. I’m
Delicious. You’re right, you’re right. It was a good pickup.
I would almost categorize that under what I’d call like the hidden curriculum because there’s the bits of a university and college. The educational experience, going to class, taking notes, critical thinking, levels of questions, all this kind of stuff, meeting deadlines. The research the rigor that goes into the writing, presenting, so on and so forth. But then there’s, How do you cook and maybe how do you do laundry, right? There’s all those things. It’s just life. As a leader, it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, you can’t it’ll, it won’t serve you well if you’re making all these assumptions. That the kids or your staff or whomever, you know, you take for granted that they have these skills. So that’s really a really fun story. I appreciate you sharing that. Now is a great time for us to take a quick break to get some messages in from our show sponsors. But when we come back, I would love to talk to you about why it’s not very British at all to say I or me and what your answer will be.
I’ll be ready,
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Today. Today’s show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder develops the skills and habits all students need for success during these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings. Organized binder equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed, whether at home or in the classroom. Learn more at organizedbinder.com. We’re back with Dr. Atkins, the president over at Cambridge University’s Lucy Cavendish College. And I promised after the break, we would talk about why it’s not very British at all to say “I or me.” And I love that. That makes you laugh each time I say that, by the way. It is not very British to say I or me, but rather a team and we did it. Tell us, tell us why.
Well in all my experience in high school and in different, very different kinds of university, and also when I was working with ministers at a national level for all universities in England and so on, you learn very fast that unless there is a team which buys into the vision and which has contributed to that vision. So there is real ownership. And unless that team has the confidence to open up to feedback from the students, really open up to feedback from the students, you are not going to be running an optimal organization. So that’s really been a kind of guiding principle for me from, from my time as a high school teacher onwards, and certainly introducing as we have done at Lucy Cavendish College, a radical change which has made us pretty unique in Cambridge University.
You can’t do that without actually having the support of a whole range of people who are not only just saying, “Yes, I think that’s a good idea, but are actually rolling up their sleeves and implementing.” So that gap between the promise of a vision and actually implementing it so that the students genuinely are benefiting you doesn’t close that gap, I think by just saying, I tell you to do this, or this is my way forward. That, that has to be a whole team effort. And it’s also, and I think this came out in our work with the student researchers last year. It also enables one in this kind of organization, a higher education organization, to bring the students into that leadership team so that we are constantly evolving and refreshing what we know about their experience, and then tracking whether the initiatives we introduce work or not.
So alongside don’t say I or we, it’s not British. The other thing I’d say is that a fabulous team needs data and tracking the right data in the right way is also, I think, important for achieving the results that we all are looking for. Certainly at Lucy Cavendish College, one of the things is what does success look like? Well, one of the things that success looks like is that there is no difference in the final degree result between students from less privileged and students from more privileged backgrounds. That’s a problem across the UK higher education system. I don’t know whether it’s also a problem in the states, certainly, but we are determined in the college and all the ways that I’ve spoken about to make sure that that gap does not exist or that we close that gap.
And similarly, that the gap that exists in first employment destinations is closed. And that’s why we have a career as an enterprise support program in part. I think without the data to do the course corrections the team is a little bit rudderless. Again, you need people with all sorts of different backgrounds on the team. We need as much diversity on the team as we have within the college student body. One of those skill sets, indeed, is the data and knowing which questions to ask and which data to study and to keep studying over time.
They talk about being data rich and information poor. I’m just curious before I get to the last questions I ask all the guests. How do you determine the data that matters and the questions you should be asking? That’s a big question that I’m asking you, but for a ruckus maker, they have access to the data and can make better decisions. I’m just curious how your mind works through that.
I would say first of all, this is evolving. I don’t think you necessarily have the answer for all time at any one point in time. For us, we start with what is it we’re trying to achieve? Obviously, what is the composition of our student body? Are we actually succeeding in having the most diverse student body in Cambridge? That’s what we have at the moment. We measure that in different factors of diversity, underrepresentation underserved community and so on. So clearly that’s our mission. That’s why that’s our dna. You’ve gotta have some data capture around that. What are we trying to achieve? What does success look like? And then you choose your data questions that address that. So obviously results for academic results, but also career destination. So for example, I know that I think it’s roughly half of our graduates over the last decade or so in organizations of all kinds addressing the United Nations sustainable development goals.
This is the passion, the commitment we look for in students from these diverse backgrounds. They want to make a positive impact on society. That’s what we interview for. And the enterprising mindset that gets you in along with your grades. And then we want to see whether we have amplified that? Have we facilitated that success for our graduates as they go through from Cambridge University into their first, second destinations? So, that’s the roundabout way of saying, I guess the data has to reflect what your DNA is, and it has to reflect your success. And I would add there’s a core of data that we wish to keep long term running long term. So you, you can, you can track over time and relate it to other things that are happening in society, but then there are specific things or initiatives you decide to do because you’ve had the feedback from the students and so on. And then you track that for a period to see has it made a difference? Did we get that right? I think the answer is on several levels.
Well, thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate it. I know it’s gonna help a lot of Ruckus Makers out. All right, You can put a message on all school Marques, around the world for a single day. What does your message read?
Okay, the front of the Marques says you can do it and the back of the market, he says, And it’s worth it.
Oh, okay. I think that might be the first time somebody’s utilized the front and the back. So well done with that. I appreciate the answer there. Now you’re building your dream school battling, so you have no limitations in terms of resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. So how would you build your dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
Okay, so perhaps inevitably I will mirror what we’re in part, what we’re trying to achieve at Lucy Canish College. The first thing is it’s a personalized, supportive environment. And probably that means it’s not huge. Then around that you would curate in the ideal school, you would curate a range of opportunities. That means the students grow in confidence and in that enterprising mindset, and that they are then able to take up those opportunities, which might be local, national, international, might be online or face to face, but which are extending their academic understanding. Critical thinking, all of those things. But also bringing them into contact with people who are different who have different values, different nationalities, different approaches to problems and being engaged in real projects that matter together with people from these different backgrounds that actually they then feel they are making a contribution.
That there is something positive that they can point to and say, Yes, I was part of the group that achieved that. I was part of the project that did that. So, that for me would be the ideal school. It is a nucleus, as I say, that builds self-confidence and the enterprising mindset. And then around it, a curated set of fabulous, fantastic opportunities that will extend those pupils in ways that are fantastic for the pupil and/or student. Indeed for those who are teaching and supporting.
We covered a lot of ground today. We spoke on many different topics about everything we discussed. What’s the one thing you want a ruckus maker to remember?
From my own experience, it would be this: Be fearless. Go out there and form the partnerships beyond your immediate comfort zone. Partnerships for the school in many different sectors with all sorts of resources. Go for the resources that are gonna benefit the students. Don’t be constrained by the assumptions of what a school should do and what its boundaries should be. Break those boundaries fearlessly, which is whyCollege is looking for partner high schools in the States. And indeed benefactors and foundations behind that. We would love some of those students to come to Lucy Carbon College Cambridge. That would be fantastic.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast, Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more ruckus makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the hashtag #BLBS level Up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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