Thanks a Million!

13 June 2024

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Guest Blog – QAA


This summer QAA is celebrating the registration of their first million students onto Access to Higher Education Diploma courses since they started managing the scheme for the recognition and quality assurance of this provision in 1997.

‘QAA is exceptionally proud to oversee this brilliant qualification and we are always delighted to see the successes of Access students who invariably are taking the Diploma to make huge, positive changes in their lives,’ says Charlotte Collard, QAA’s Access to Higher Education Diploma Manager.

To celebrate the achievements of so many of our Access to HE students – and the people who work so hard to deliver the courses – we’ve spoken with just a few of the tens of thousands who’ve progressed into higher education over the last couple of years, to catch up with them on how they’ve been getting on.


Reanna Bleu’s doing pretty well for herself.

Born and brought up in south London, she’s now in her second year studying at the world-famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). In 2022, she was awarded an emerging talent bursary – along with an opportunity for expert mentoring – from the award-winning theatre company Les Enfants Terribles.

‘I’d never really had the confidence to pursue anything artistic like acting,’ she recalls. ‘I’d always wanted to do it, but it wasn’t until I was 18, just after the first lockdown, that I started doing something about it.’

Reanna had seen the London-born movie star Daniel Kaluuya talking about the youth groups he’d joined as an aspiring actor, and gone on to look these up. She’d found a programme based in Haringey that felt right for her. It was called Collage Voices.

‘They don’t have a lot of funding, but they’ve got such good people,’ she says.

She hadn’t gone to sixth form or done any A levels, and it was here that she’d heard about the Access to Higher Education Diploma run by the National Youth Theatre. It was a 10-month course which she started in 2021.

‘And that’s where I got the support that I needed to apply to go to drama school,’ she says. ‘They helped us with our applications and our portfolios. They were great – they taught us a lot and really helped us through the whole process.’

Reanna didn’t tell anyone outside her family she was applying to RADA. She feels that took the pressure off her a little bit, during what turned out to be a very rigorous application process – a full four rounds of auditions, as well as an interview.

But, she was impressed by the degree of care RADA took in the selection process. ‘I knew it was the right place for me,’ she says. ‘When they offered me a place, I felt so grateful. I suddenly realised that if I just keep going then I can really get far.’

Reanna started her studies at RADA in September 2022.

‘It’s really challenging, but I find I’m now better at accepting these challenges,’ she says. ‘It’s the most work I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s really rewarding and fun. It’s about producing great performers. Every week we’ve got something new to learn, a different partner and a different project. I’m really proud of the group I’m in. I really love it.’

We’d managed to catch her for a brief chat during a rare break in her studies.

‘The hours are very long here – it’s usually 10 to 12-hour days,’ she explains. ‘I’m at school more than I’m at home. But my family are really happy for me and are very supportive.’

When Reanna applied for the bursary from Les Enfants Terribles, she had to submit a video of herself. She hadn’t felt very confident about it and had left it to the last minute. She remembers being amazed when they told her that her application had been successful.

‘I was really, really happy, and really, really grateful,’ she recalls. ‘It made me so happy that I’d actually gone for it. And they were very lovely about it.’

She says she’s been thinking about how different her life was just a few years ago.

‘I never thought I could have been doing this, I'm just so grateful. I feel like I'm creating a path for myself. And I know I'll be able to keep on progressing, just by honouring those small moments of progress every day.’

— Reanna Bleu


In March, Danny Svenson was honoured for his outstanding commitment to his studies at the annual Access to Higher Education Awards at the House of Commons

Last year, he completed an Access to HE Diploma in Land-Based Studies at Bishop Burton College in Beverley. A couple of months into the course, his marriage had broken down, leaving him jobless and homeless

‘I managed to carry on with the course,’ he recalls. ‘It was the one thing that gave me structure and got me through. My tutors were incredibly helpful – they were brilliant.’

Danny is now studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Behaviour and Wildlife Conservation at Bishop Burton College. He is also employed part-time as a zookeeper at Sewerby Hall and Gardens, near Bridlington, where he works with, amongst other creatures, the lemurs, monkeys, goats, donkeys, alpacas and penguins. He’d applied for the job as he was finishing his Access course. He feels that the course helped him get the job

‘100 per cent,’ he says. ‘Without a doubt.’

Before he started the Access course, he’d worked on a pig farm

‘I’d worked with pigs for 12 years, and decided I didn’t want to do that anymore,’ he explains. ‘I grew up watching Steve Irwin on TV. I was obsessed with his shows. I’ve always wanted to work with animals. Pig farming was one way of doing that. But I decided that if I was going to work with animals I wanted to do it for the benefit of the animals, not for someone’s back pocket. And I realised that to do the kind of work I wanted to do with animals, I’d needed to get a degree.’

His girlfriend also took an Access course. She now works as a secondary school teacher in Biology

‘It’s worked well for her, too,’ Danny says

He says he’d strongly recommend such courses to anyone thinking of taking one.

‘Do it. Just do it,’ he says. ‘Take the plunge. It's worth it. It was a big leap for me to go onto the course from full-time work, but I'm so glad I did.’

— Danny Svenson


Ellen Underwood is brimming with good humour, energy and passion. Now 28 years old, she was born and brought up in Stockport, near Manchester, where she still lives with her mum.

She has three younger sisters, who have all studied at university, but in 2013, after completing an A level in Health & Social Care at Stockport College, she left education and went to work in a nursing home.

‘I knew I always wanted to work as a midwife, but I never did much about it,’ she says. ‘I ended up working in the care industry to bring some money in, and by my mid-twenties, I thought I was too old to go to university and had missed my chance.”

Ellen’s interest in midwifery had started to develop when she’d been much younger. In fact, she’d been there when her sisters had been born. Two of those births had been particularly difficult.

‘To be honest, there wasn’t much support available during or after her pregnancy, so I looked after my mum,’ she says. ‘I remember her telling me I’d make a good midwife. That thought stuck with me, and I started reading about it. Ever since then, it’s what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve felt I could really be that light in someone’s darkness when they most need it. It’s not always easy in midwifery, but of course it’s wonderful to advocate for women in the most precious, vulnerable times of their lives.’

A couple of years ago, Ellen happened to come across a social media post from Stockport College promoting their Access course in Nursing & Midwifery. It had included the words of a former Access student who’d said that she’d never looked back.

‘I thought to myself, yes, I could do that,’ Ellen recalls. ‘I can challenge myself. I don’t want to be stuck here forever. I really have to give it a go, to have a chance at doing what I’ve always wanted to do.’

She’d been out of education for nearly a decade when she applied for the course.

‘I’m not a very academic person at all,’ she says. ‘I’m more hands-on.’

Yet she found she hugely enjoyed the course with its mix of chemistry, human biology and health studies, combined with some psychology and the background of healthcare and the NHS.

‘And I learnt that age is just a number, not a barrier to education,’ she adds.

At the start of the Access course, she’d felt a bit overawed by the scale of the commitment in front of her. But her first meeting with her tutor changed all that.

‘My tutor said she’d seen so many people sitting there in front of her who were just like me,” Ellen recalls. ‘That made me feel so much better – that it wasn’t just me, that there were other people at my age doing it.’

She quickly made friends with her fellow students. She became a course rep, and in that role was able to offer both academic and emotional support.

Having completed the course, she then waited for the results of her applications to Midwifery programmes. She was, she says, ‘shocked’ to have been offered a place at the University of Manchester.

‘When I got the news, I cried my eyes out,’ she says. ‘I guess they must have seen something in me.’

She started Manchester’s Midwifery course last autumn and says she loves it.

‘The academic studies are intertwined with being on placements – so you get the best of both worlds,’ she explains. ‘I’m out doing student midwife stuff already – it’s amazing!’

Now, Ellen grins, she’s hugely excited about her future.

‘And I hope my story encourages other people to understand that it's never too difficult or too late to get back into education,’ she adds. ‘I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if I hadn't done the Access course, and if the teachers hadn't been so amazing. I'll always be so very grateful to them all for that.’

— Ellen Underwood

This Blog was first featured on the QAA website
on 4 June 2024.

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Change: By supporting adult students in their education journey, we ensure they have the tools to transition into new and fulfilling careers.

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