The Brilliant Club has a track record of ten years working with students from underrepresented groups across the UK, providing them with skills and experiences to help them in accessing and succeeding at highly selective universities. In 2023, this work extended to those students from refugee and migrant backgrounds in a pilot project titled ‘The Sanctuary Scholars Programme’ thanks to the funding provided by The Big Give.

Modelled of The Brilliant Club’s flagship programme, The Sanctuary Scholars Programme pilot worked with three schools in the Greater Manchester Area, enabling their key stage four students to study with PhD researchers from a range of subject areas to tackle the Big Question ‘Is Change Important?’ Twenty-one students undertook five academic tutorials, had the opportunity to write or present a final piece on the topic, and attended a graduation trip at the University of Manchester. (Details of the event can be found here: Sanctuary Scholars Graduate from the University of Manchester – The Brilliant Club)

Programme Development

In order to develop the programme, Dr. Alex Owens, Senior Access and Success Projects Officer at The Brilliant Club, consulted a number of experts already working in the field – Refugee Education UK, Refugee Aid and Professor Jo McIntyre. From these consultations, Owens designed a programme and theory of change which encapsulated McIntyre & Abrams’ (2021) notion of ‘succeeding’. In particular, the following three principles were the cornerstone of programme development:

  • Students felt like they could be authentic and have a positive sense of wellbeing in a tutorial setting.
  • Students would know how to make meaningful choices about their next steps.
  • Students are valued and able to contribute as members of society. (McIntyre & Abrams, 2021, 96)

These principles, along with ideas around trauma-sensitive teaching from Jennings (2019) and Eller & Hierick (2021) were combined with The Brilliant Club’s PhD tutor led model. The result was a programme that was not only sensitive to the students’ situations, but also sought to stretch them academically and inform them about their potential next steps for future study in the UK.

Impact & Significance

Whilst the post-programme data is still to be analysed (and then formed into an Impact report), early data from the start of the pilot showed that twenty out of twenty-one participants had an ambition to go into higher education in the UK. However, of that number, only half understood the routes available to them to get there. This was a theme picked up by an Article 26 scholar currently studying at the University of Manchester who presented at the graduation event when he explained that,

‘I wish there was something like this [The Sanctuary Scholars Programme] when I was applying.’

Appreciation for the programme, and the opportunities it opened up, was also expressed by both teachers and students at the graduation event. For instance, one pupil remarked,

‘I am interested in anthropology and thinking about the need for change in society. The Sanctuary Scholars Programme helped me learn more about this subject and university.’

A teacher from a different school also reflected,

‘We really appreciate the support from Alex and the fact that the programme was tailored to the situation our cohort find themselves in. It opens up conversations about university, especially in terms of scholarships.’

The above quotes demonstrate that The Sanctuary Scholars Programme pilot provided a significant opportunity for those young people involved. However, it could also have interesting ramifications for our understanding of refugee education more generally. Much of the literature currently focuses on a teacher-pupil relationship, or at least interventions that have a substantial period in which to build trust and see change. The Sanctuary Scholars programme, on the other hand, focused on a short term (roughly one month) period in which students had the opportunity to engage with three subject experts. During the initial development of the programme, this time frame, and rotation of tutors, was an unknown and those creating the project had to make a decision between following the literature and keeping the same tutor to build trust with the students versus rotating tutors in order to provide the students with a wider set of experiences around what university study is like. At this stage, nothing conclusive can be drawn about the results of the pilot, but over the coming years The Sanctuary Scholars programme could help us understand the tension and balance between ‘safety’ and being exposed to new experiences for this group of students in an education setting.

Looking forward

Off the back of the success of the pilot, The Brilliant Club is looking to expand The Sanctuary Scholars programme to a number of universities and schools across the UK using the previous model, but developing it further. One key change that Dr. Owens is keen to implement is having the graduation event also include an audio instillation made by the students that can be played on the University campus while they are there. This leans further on McIntyre’s ‘place-based’ approach and will allow the participants’ voices to literally be heard in the university space. Similar installations have already been conducted by Stand Up and Be Counted Theatre in Sheffield (SBC THEATRE) and can help create positive associations between the vocal contributor and the place in which it is being played. The Brilliant Club hope that this, along with providing solid information to students about scholarships and helping develop academic skills, will help them make meaningful choices in about their life-long learning in the future.

For any further questions about The Sanctuary Scholars Programme or to get involved, please contact


Eller, J. & Hierck, T. (2021) Trauma-sensitive instruction: Creating a safe and predictable classroom environment. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press
Jennings, P. (2019) The Trauma-sensitive classroom: Building resilience with compassionate teaching. New York: W.W. Norton & Company
McIntyre, J. & Abrams, F. (2021) Refugee Education: Theorising Practice in Schools. London: Routledge