Pictured (above): Clare Richards with a student on an educational trip in the early days of IntoUniversity.
For those who have got to know IntoUniversity more recently, as an established national charity whose work spans the country, the connection to a local community centre in North Kensington might not be an obvious one.
But for those of us who have been involved since the beginning, the grass-roots community origins of IntoUniversity seem to be sprinkled throughout everything the organisation does.
I am privileged to have had a unique vantage point from which to view IntoUniversity’s transformation over the past two decades, both as a founder and CEO of The ClementJames Centre, the community centre out of which the charity grew, and as a member of the Board of Trustees.
In the 20 years since the inception of IntoUniversity – I’ve been stunned by its growth. But what has been most important, is how the organisation has managed to maintain the values and ethos that made it so special to begin with. Replicating the welcoming, community-based nature of the original centre – started all those years ago within The ClementJames Centre here in North Kensington.
From its humble beginnings as a homework club, Rachel, Hugh and I were encouraged by the number of young people attending the centre, but were struck by how many of them were limiting their aspirations to the experience of their families. We felt determined that young people should not be disadvantaged by their circumstances. We believed that we should offer a range of opportunities to the young people that attended the centre that others took for granted – supporting them to believe in themselves and recognise what they were capable of. We wanted to create a place where the young people ‘belonged’, where they felt welcomed and valued, and encouraged to aim high, providing access to academic support, role models, aspirational workshops and visits that demystified universities. We were delighted with the enthusiasm with which both schools and students grabbed the opportunity.
Now, from Brighton to Bradford, Clacton to Craigmillar, IntoUniversity centres can be found in the heart of communities across the country. And it doesn’t matter where you are, while every location is unique, stepping into an IntoUniversity centre always feels somewhat familiar. That feeling of warmth, curiosity, love for learning and focus is consistent.
This is no accident, I know that the IntoUniversity team are committed to ensuring the values and ethos of the charity remain steadfast and have embedded this into the induction process and beyond. What’s more, a careful process of preparation is undertaken before any new centre is opened, in which the local area is thoroughly researched before any work is even started. This is not just to ensure that a centre is both necessary and feasible, or to work out the many logistical considerations that go into opening a centre (although these are all of course very important), but also to ensure that the charity has an authentic and in-depth understanding of the communities it becomes part of, building lasting relationships with local people and community groups and seeking to understand the local social, historical and cultural nuances that make each place unique.
There is a method to this approach. As Elizabeth Parker, Principal- Learning and Evaluation at NPC states: “Place-based approaches can deliver real and meaningful positive change to their communities. They can act as a valuable catalyst for local change; present mechanisms for effectively focusing resources; prevent consultation fatigue; mobilise a ‘bottom-up’ approach and attract much needed investment.”
Throughout this anniversary there will be lots said about the many lives that have been enriched by IntoUniversity’s work, and rightly so. But you can also understand so much about an organisation by learning about where it all started. A local community centre in North Kensington, the spirit of which can now be experienced in communities all over the country.