29 Feb 2024

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Grit

In this interview, we talk to Ellie Garraway and Jon Down, CEO and Director of Development respectively, at Grit: Breakthrough Programmes, a UK charity working across many levels of education to promote belonging, ownership and engagement in learning.

Ellie has worked at Grit since 2000 and never losing her excitement about education and engagement, she completed a Masters in Positive Psychology at UEL in 2016 and an MBA at Warwick Business School in 2019 and been CEO since 2020.

Jon has a wealth of development expertise and experience gathered from a huge array of charities, government and NGOs over the last 25 years. He joined Grit in 2018.

1. Firstly, tell us a bit about Grit and your work in further and higher education. What do you try to achieve, and how do you go about it?

That’s always an interesting question!

We’ve been working in HE and, to a lesser extent in FE, for the last fifteen years or so. Universities commission us for a whole variety of reasons – it can be around retention, progression and academic achievement. It can be working with underrepresented students, it can be subject specific. It all depends on what a university is looking to achieve.

We work with students on belonging and community, on connection, on coming to feel part of something bigger than themselves. A big part of this is empowering them to proactively build their own networks of support. So it’s also about self-awareness, about confidence, about self-efficacy.

We also work with staff, both academic and professional services. For us, engaging students is all about putting the relationship with them at the centre of every interaction. For example, our work challenges Personal Tutors to work in a supportive, empowering way that support students to take charge, to take responsibility for their studies.

We do all this using our group coaching methodology where participants look into their own beliefs, mind sets and attitudes and uncover limitations and blind spots they didn’t know were there. And it’s then they can create breakthroughs in how they view themselves, how they view others and how they view the world around them.

And as it is a group coaching approach, what can emerge is a community of support that turns these breakthroughs in mind set into action, and to sustain the change over the months and years ahead.

2. And how do you feel about the term “student engagement”? How would you define it, and how do those you work with contribute to your definition of it?

Well, that has really got me thinking. That term is used pretty readily and I’m not sure I’ve stopped to ask myself how I feel about it. What comes to mind is that often we talk about it as a problem: ‘how do we raise student engagement?’ ‘how do we impact the post-covid drop in student engagement’…. When we think about things as problems like this I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful and it kind of turns ‘student engagement’ into something that we’re attempting to ‘do’ to students. I think a more useful way to come at it is as a relationship. The first way to understand what’s going on in a relationship that feels stuck is to have the willingness to look at yourself, your blindspots, assumptions, beliefs that are part of the ‘stuckness’. So the students have a role in this and so do we.

And it’s not just a one-to-one relationship. The students we work with talk a lot about the power of the community – how that sense of connection they build with a Grit workshop is a massive part of them feeling engaged and feeling like they belong where they are. They also talk about their agency in creating that – realising they can be proactive in the choices they make and not just experience education as something they’re on the receiving end of.

So there is this multi-faceted relationship – the more responsibility each party brings to it, the more that becomes possible.

3. We met you at the September 2023 RAISE conference in Leeds in September 2023, where you presented alongside the University of Leeds on the work you have done there. For those not lucky enough to have been at your excellent session, can you give us a quick primer of what you shared about the work you did there?

Grit started out, more than 30 years ago now, delivering programmes with some of the most ‘at risk’ young people in some of our most marginalised communities. These were young people involved in crime and violence, young people subject to substance abuse, homelessness and poverty. So our presentation was about how our approach has translated into work on the belonging and community in universities, and in particular at the University of Leeds.

Their Plus Programme has supported around 1000 widening participation students annually. It focuses on easing their transition into HE, finding their 'place' at Leeds, their progression through their studies and on to PG study or employment

4. How did you enjoy the RAISE conference more generally? It’s a major opportunity to draw together different experiences in student engagement, so what is your sense of what you learned about that wider national conversation about student engagement?

It was a great conference. It was such a treat to meet up with so many people I only knew from the other end of Zoom or Teams calls!

What became clear was the extent to which student engagement is something everyone is wrestling with. It’s the sheer complexity which is so challenging - students who have had different journeys to get to university, those who are operating on different timetables and at different life stages, those who are looking for different things from the experience, those who have different definitions of success.

So, with these intersecting social identities, approaches to engaging and supporting students are becoming more about supporting every student to feel seen, heard and valued. The focus is shifting towards the conscious development of “the whole person”.

And there was the very real sense that we cannot do this in isolation. The notion of students as genuine and active partners came across in many of the sessions I was at. It felt like we’re at the beginning of a sea change, a fundamental shift in how we engage students and, more importantly, how students engage with learning, with universities and with each other.

5. You have a particular strand of work, ‘Students of Colour & Black Leaders’. Tell us why this is such an important dimension for you, and what staff and students should be aware of in order to make learning environments the sorts of spaces that everyone can belong to.

This has been such an exciting journey for Grit and a growing area of work that I feel really passionate about. Black students and students of colour really don’t have a black-only environment to connect and to share in a safe space the challenges they are facing. We regularly hear students in these workshops talking about the barriers they have overcome even to get to university and then new challenges once they arrive, feeling isolated, experiences of racism, the loss of connection to their community and culture, the lack of representation in teaching and support staff that sometimes creates a barrier in getting the help they need. Sadly we still live in a society where people of colour do not feel that all spaces are safe for them. Most universities have an awarding gap for black students and most universities have not got a staff body that demographically reflects their students so these safe spaces are absolutely critical in building progress.

If you want to create a more inclusive environment I think I would say the starting point is to find a way to examine your own prejudice, to recognise and accept that it exists, and with that awareness maybe you can start to listen to others in a new way. But also maybe it’s not possible yet to have environments where everyone can belong, maybe we need some distinct environments where those who’ve been consistently minoritised throughout history can come together and build their voice and their community power.

6. Something you’ve spoken about powerfully is the implication of meaningful belonging and engagement for institutional cultures as a whole. What would be your advice to college and university leaders about responding to the current challenges for student engagement?

I think this goes back (a bit) to the earlier question on student engagement. We have to see ourselves as part of the challenge. I might want to ask leaders how engaged they feel their staff are right now as a starting point; my perception is that university staff (professional services and academics) have felt under huge strain right through covid up until now with very little let up. There is almost a sense of overwhelm. So if our staff are struggling/exhausted/overwhelmed maybe they don’t feel that engaged themselves. So how do we then expect our students to feel engaged? I’m not saying that’s true of all staff or all institutions but using it as an example of how we need to start with ourselves and with asking some – perhaps – uncomfortable questions about our own mind-set and attitudes (which ultimately create our culture). If we can’t see how we’re getting in our own way we run the risk of being blind to potential ways forward.

So I guess it’s looking at how to create a culture where there is a real sense of ownership and a real willingness to listen, both to our students and to each other.


Thanks to Ellie and Jon for being interviewees. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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