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Critical thinkers

Students graduating

Students graduating Lois Bibbings

13 October 2009

Working with young school-age mothers in Bristol

The Meriton Law Enrichment Project is a pioneering programme that involves both bringing school-age mothers to the University and working with them in their usual school environment.

The project involves students from The Meriton, a pupil referral unit that provides education and support for young mothers, attending a series of teaching sessions at the University run by Lois Bibbings of the School of Law, in conjunction with Doug Jennings of the Widening Participation and Undergraduate Recruitment Office. They take part in undergraduate-style interactive lectures and seminars, debating subjects such as the shifting boundaries of sexual offences, law and policy relating to domestic violence, the nature of discrimination, and a range of other topics. These University-based sessions are supplemented by occasional visits by Lois and Doug to the school to assist in classes.

Born in Bristol and brought up nearby, the project has particular significance for Lois, whose research focuses on gender issues. It enables her to put something back into her local area while bringing together her interests in research, teaching and community engagement. "Our aims are to raise the young women’s confidence and aspirations as well as developing their critical thinking," says Lois, "but it is also about fostering mutual respect with a group which can be inspiring and academically brilliant, but which often gets sidelined." Doug explains that the project is also concerned with challenging people’s prejudices: whether society’s preconceptions about what young people can achieve, or young people’s negative expectations of university.

“We work quite a lot with both fictitious and real scenarios, like the ‘Baby P’ case,” explains Lois. “We look at what the students think is going on, what they feel should happen, what they think the law is, what it actually is, and then consider how law really works in practice.” This use of storytelling not only helps to engage the students from the outset but also draws upon Lois’s research on narrative and the importance of tales in terms of both what and how we think.

These young people are not quite like the average undergraduate student. "They bring a range of personal experiences, " says Lois. "There's no problem getting them to state their opinions!" Although the lessons often don't quite go to plan, this can lead to a much richer experience. "You can usefully meander," says Lois, "and learn a lot while you're travelling."

For Lois, the Meriton project feeds into and helps shape her research; and it is certainly valued by the young people for whom it provides opportunities. One student said: “I loved debating, hearing other people’s views and challenging what people said... Going to Bristol University made me much more determined to succeed.”

Further information

For more information about the project, contact Lois Bibbings, lois.s.bibbings@bristol.ac.uk or Doug Jennings, doug.jennings@bristol.ac.uk.