What is widening participation?
Widening participation is an initiative that seeks to give the opportunity to anyone who has the ability and desire, whatever their background, to enter higher education.
"It is the aim of the BMA medical students committee to ensure that every potential medical student, regardless of background or barriers, has an equal opportunity to become a doctor."
Amile Inusa, MSC widening participation lead 2014-15.
In the UK, medicine and being a doctor has traditionally been seen as a career for the elite or privileged in British society.
Although the medical profession has sought to combat this over recent decades, the recent Selecting for Excellence report released in 2014 which examined the issue of widening participation into medicine, found that 80% of all medical students in the UK stem from just 20% of schools.
Despite efforts to increase gender parity and ethnic diversity amongst UK doctors, the lack of people from lower socio economic backgrounds entering the profession is still a reality.
With such demanding entry criteria into medical school, it is important that candidates to medical schools are selected in the fairest way possible. However concerns have been raised that some students, despite having the necessary aptitude to study medicine, are being excluded from this career pathway, to the detriment of the profession.
Read more about the Selecting for Excellence report from the Medical Schools Council
Why is this a problem?
Thinking about how and why widening participation is recognised, try answering the following questions:
- Did your parents go to university? Are your parents or anyone in your family a doctor? Did your parents job require them to have a degree from university?
- Were you eligible for free school meals at school? Did you grow up in a single parent family? Were you ever in care or living with relatives that weren't your parents?
- At secondary school, were you expected to achieve high grades? Were you given high expectations to aspire to, like pursuing medicine as a career?
- What resources did you have access to primary or secondary school? Were teachers or career advisors on hand to talk to about your career? Were you offered help with your university applications or gaining work experience to support your application?
- Did you, your family or friends regard university as too expensive or not for 'someone like you'?
These questions cover just a few of the reasons that determine when a student may be considered from a disadvantaged background, and therefore in the minority when it comes to the people who are successfully entering medical school, becoming doctors and treating patients in the NHS.
As the UK demographics change and the aspirations of the national health service increase, we need to ensure that medical schools select students based on merit but that they also encourage those with the potential to study medicine to regard it as a viable option, irrespective of their socio economic circumstances.
Widening participation is not just about ensuring those with the potential to become a doctor are given the opportunity, but also ensuring that the NHS is reflective and understanding of the needs of its patients into the future.
What is being done?
All 33 UK medical schools are required to have some kind of outreach scheme that widens access to courses that lead to professional careers, including medicine.
The outreach schemes on offer vary with some medical schools offering summer school for secondary students that assist with medical school applications and gaining work experience, to primary school outreach that seeks to inspire children at a young age to consider medicine.
Universities like King's College London offer a six year extended medical degree programme, that has dedicated places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The course uses contextual admissions data for entry and provides extra support for students by splitting the first year of medical school into two years.
If you think you may benefit from attending an outreach scheme, extra support or would like more information, contact the medical schools directly about what outreach they could offer you.
Read our comprehensive guide to becoming a doctor
See our map of all medical schools in the UK
We've pulled together some information and websites that can help you, if you need extra support with applying to medical school.
- Read more about the issue of widening participation and hear stories from medical students currently studying at university on Future doctors on BMA communities.
- The Social Mobility Foundation is a UK wide charity established to make practical improvement for people from lower socio economic backgrounds. They run programmes, including for potential medical students, that give an insight into top professions and help students through work placements and mentoring to achieve their goals of going to university.
- The Brightside Trust is a charity that helps young people access education and career pathways. Their online mentoring platform supports many UK wide schemes like Realising Opportunities, that teams up with universities to promote social mobility and fair access to higher education.
- The Sutton Trust, founded in 1997, seeks to improve social mobility through education. They fund programmes, undertake research and advocate for fair access to education. Their pathways to medicine programme is aimed at year 11 and sixth form students, assisting them academically and providing support, such as work placements, mentoring and soft skills sessions, to assist in their application to medical school
- Help me I'm a Medic is a social enterprise based in Oxford, who provide useful information for medical school applicants and hold two conferences a year for aspiring doctors.
- MyBigCareer is a charity that works to break down barriers to social mobility through encouraging access to professions for the most disadvantaged young people in the country. They have set up mentoring and work experience schemes within medicine, matching young students with medical professionals.
- Pure Potential is an independent organisation which raises the aspirations of thousands of sixth-formers every year, encouraging them to apply to and achieve offers from excellent universities and leading employers. They publish a guide to universities and careers and hold regular events.
- Access Professions is an online charity, which boosts social mobility through targeted communications that enable students to see relevant opportunities listed on the site. Opportunities can include summer schools, internships, mentoring schemes, career insight days, school leaver programmes, university taster days, masterclasses, podcasts, videos and more.
- MedicMentor is a social enterprise and professional resource that runs several courses for prospective students, organises an annual careers fair and produced several publications.
- NHS Medical Careers has further general information on widening participation with resources.
- The Medical Schools Council represents medical schools in the UK. Check out their handy resources on applying to medical school plus more information about their ongoing work on widening participation.