In Conversation with Anne-Marie Canning, CEO of The Brilliant Club

The Brilliant Club’s mission is to increase the number of pupils from underrepresented backgrounds progressing to highly selective universities. Anne Marie Canning was appointed CEO of The Brilliant Club on the first day of lockdown. We interviewed her to hear about her perspective on educational inequality, how it has been affected by the pandemic and to find out more about her driving motivations for working with The Brilliant Club.

What do you feel are the main obstacles preventing pupils from underrepresented backgrounds gaining access to higher education?

“I see there being three key barriers to young people progressing to highly selective universities: 
1.    Educational attainment. We see that educational attainment is very closely linked to socio economic background. Studies have shown that a child’s achievements at GCSE stage are one of the strongest predictors to whether a child goes onto higher education. Therefore, encouraging children at early stages of their education is vital to whether they move onto highly selective universities. 
2.    Support Mechanisms. I’ve never met a young person who is not aspirational and has great dreams. However often these children do not have the support mechanisms to make these dreams a reality. Support mechanisms take shape through role models, family members, parents and carers. Young people are influenced by their support mechanisms attitude towards higher education. 
3.    Material Barriers. Covid-19 has really helped to bring this into stark relief. If you do not have the correct learning materials then it is really difficult to attain and progress to higher education. Even something like a student’s ability to travel affects their school experience and whether they can visit universities and open days.”

To help address these key barriers The Brilliant Club set up The Scholars Programme where small groups of pupils work with a PHD Tutor to explore their research and experience university style learning. 
The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme’s latest evaluation with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has shown that 44% of their graduates progress to a highly-selective university, compared to 28% of pupils in matched control groups.

What do you feel the Scholars Programme provides which makes their graduates twice as likely to progress?

"I believe that the magic of The Scholars Programme lies in the children’s access to meeting a specialised tutor who is excited about education. They get a connection with a really unique subject area and get direct access to these tutors.

In the UK we have a curriculum with a clear set of exams. The ability to study something which is off-piste and niche, is a completely different and intellectually stimulating experience for the children. All the way from primary to sixth form we are offering young people the opportunity to explore something outside of the confines of the curriculum. One of my favourite Scholars Programmes courses we run is quite a complex piece of astro-physics for primary school children called ‘Would Stars Float in the Bath?’.

We know the programme has a particularly strong effect on confidence, university skills and self-efficacy for study. We’ve got 5 years worth of data that show us it is making a material very substantial difference to applications, offers and acceptances to the most competitive universities.

I am passionate about making sure more young people get the opportunity to access The Scholars Programme, so we are scaling it up quite significantly in our forthcoming strategy."

Pandemics already exacerbate inequalities in all shapes and forms, but how do you feel that Covid 19 has compounded these educational disparities that drive inequality in attaining higher education?

“Despite a lot of our charities progress being reversed , the pandemic has made a lot more people aware of inequality and more passion about making a change, which I haven’t previously seen in my career.

Just before Christmas, The Ipsos MORI’s Issues index showed that for the first time ever the public is more motivated about issues of inequality. I think this is also influenced by our working environment, where we have found ourselves all looking into each other’s homes. People are acknowledging that everything is connected. If you cannot eat breakfast because you are living in food poverty, this has a material effect on your academic performance. 

Outside of The Brilliant Club, I look after the government Opportunity Area in Bradford. The most recent survey we did showed that over half the children are regularly worrying about their parental household income. If a child is worrying about money and bringing this into their classroom, it will undoubtedly have an effect on their ability to engage cognitively with their learning material.

We cannot think in single systems if we want to create a better future for children after Covid. We are seeing a lot more joined up thinking about how we can make change.”

What have you seen to be the effect of this mass solidarity? 

“For me, the big opportunity from Covid, if there is one from this awful pandemic, is that people are much more clear-eyed about what it might take to make change happen to build a fairer society. 

As an organisation we took all our programmes online. After Covid we will maintain that provision as it enabled us to reach into areas which have been more regionally isolated due to poor transport links. For all organisations, there is a lot that we have learnt over the last year that will becoming BAU and should have a more equalising affect is we administer them in the right way.”

What have you found to be the most prevalent complications The Brilliant Club have had to overcome over the pandemic?

“We took our programmes and developed them for a digital environment. It has been a journey and what we are offering today, is much better than what we were offering last year and it will continue to improve. However, I see our work as a contact sport as it relies on our ability to engage with the young people we work with. Doing this in a virtual environment and ensuring our methods are cutting through, despite not being face to face, is a work in progress. 

The regional nature of Covid has also been a real challenge as a nationwide charity. We felt the regional inequalities much more starkly than other organisations. There were some areas of the country where we could not even speak to schools or teachers because they just in a completely different environment all together. We were really keen to get the National Tutoring Programme and necessary provisions into those social mobility cold spots/ Covid hotspots.”

What role do you feel corporates can play in providing opportunities for people from underrepresented groups?

“The partnership that Kleinwort Hambros and The Brilliant Club have is very meaningful and allows us to further our mission. The knowledge sharing piece that we are doing is demonstrative of how meaningful corporate social responsibility can be. I think many people can turn their noses up at it, and think of it as an organisations philanthropic tick box. However, a solid CSR approach is a fundamental pillar of a business in the modern world.
The handbook is a fabulous example of how corporates have a particular resource of expertise that The Brilliant Club can then share so that thousands of young people can access these resources on finance and banking.

Another thing Corporates can do is to be honest with themselves about whether they are building ladders of opportunity within their organisations and scrutinize their recruitment process and practices. It is important to ask the questions ‘are we recruiting from the same set of universities?’, ‘does our recruitment process value diversity?’ and ‘does our recruitment process acknowledge performance in context and the value of a diverse workforce and calibrates appropriately to that. Organisations need to see themselves as engines of opportunity in terms of the labour market and careers and take that quite seriously.

The third thing would be about how you spend your money as a corporate. I would like to see more corporates signing up as living wage accredited employers. It is really important for corporates to show leadership in terms of living wage as this is a fundamental part in ensuring good education for children, is paying mum’s and dad’s living wage.”

In your interview with Future First you stated “I’ve sort of dedicated my career to what had helped me move forward in life and I even got an MBE this time last year for Services to Higher education!”
What has been your experience with education that has led you to dedicate your career to support the development of young people from under privileged backgrounds?

“I grew up in a small village just outside of Doncaster and it was due to a programme, not too dissimilar to The Brilliant Club, that I became the first person in my family to go to university, at a school where very few children got GCSE’s. I was also fortunate to live opposite a library, but possibly more importantly, I had a person very early in my education who helped accelerate my ambition. This person was my English teacher who recognised that I couldn’t stop reading and saw this as a positive thing to nourish. She faxed off my application to go on the programme that changed everything. 

It is vital for society to have a diverse workforce. I align myself with the research of Kate Pickett, who states that when we have a socially mobile and equal society where people can make the most of their talents, we have a more tolerant, humane and trusting society.”

If you would like to read more about The Brilliant Club please find the link to their website by clicking here. Equally, if you would like to get in touch please reach out to