widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening participation seminar 2

Unlike the previous seminar that was focused more on research and its value in widening participation, the second in the series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars had a distinct focus on the nature of outreach work and how to evaluate its success. What was distinct from the three papers and the plenary discussions is the heterogeneous nature of what work is done and how institutions judge its success. In the opening, Annette Hayton posed the issue of how reporting, evaluation and research can often form discreet entities that can be divorced from practice. There were many issues raised over the day but I will pull out some of the key issues and my reflection on these.

The first paper given by Colin McCaig explored his work on content and discourse analysis of Access Agreements from 2006 and 2012 across 10 pre-1992 and 10 post-1992 universities. His paper addressed many key issues but the most striking was how much of the focus at primary level was coming from pre-1992 institutions. I would suggest that this is in some ways problematic as the overwhelming discourse from the pre-1992 institutions was that they wanted to work with ‘the brightest’, ‘the best’ and ‘high attainers’. Does this mean that in some cases these primary children may be developing a sense that if they do not make it to a pre-1992 university that they are in some way deficient or have failed? *

Also interesting in Colin’s paper was the shifts in language in Access Agreements between 2006 and 2012. Changes were more prevalent in post-1992 institutions that moved from talking about institutional focused issues to those centered on individuals. In pre-1992 institutions there was less change but, the main change in focus was around the role of widening participation as a civic virtue. This marked change in post-1992’s and more static approach in pre-1992’s may offer some insights into the thinking of institutional leadership teams onto why they should do widening participation work.

The second paper was a whistle stop tour by Carole Leathwood through a DfE funded study into school and college strategies to raise aspirations. I was very pleased to hear Carole’s reflection on the problematic nature of the steering groups insistence on using the term raising aspirations. As I have written about before, the issues is not one of low aspirations but mismatched or poorly channeled aspiration, which Carole helpfully termed an ‘Expectation Gap’. What worries me however is even despite a growing acknowledgement that the discourse of raising aspirations is problematic that there seems to be a reluctance to abandon it.

The study was relatively extensive and looked at 400 schools and 100 colleges with a telephone survey and 9 schools and 2 colleges as case studies. What was interesting was that 98% of colleges and 97% of schools said they did some ‘aspiration raising work’ and that there was a unanimous message that all options should be discussed, not just Higher Education. This resonates very much with feedback from teachers about events we have run with them valuing the fact we discuss all options open to young people and is often a criticism of other widening participation events they have participated in. This is something that is worth all practioners in the field taking some time to reflect on.

The study cited many elements that make a difference and I think it is useful to summarise them here:

  • Whole school and college culture that engages in this work
  • Well organized and structured programme
  • Advice on subject choice
  • Student finance advice
  • Dedicated specialist staff in schools
  • Vising speakers / Alumni
  • Personalised one to one support
  • Mentoring
  • University visits and Summer Schools

Overwhelmingly, it is these visits that were cited by both students and teachers as having the most profound impact although they also noted the issues of cost in being able to attend these visits. There was clearly a London effect where these schools were doing more and the transport issue could be a key factor in this. I would also suggest that getting student ambassadors into London schools is a far easier prospect than into a rural school with limited transport links or at a distance from a university campus. Carole’s paper raised many more issues and I would highly recommend any practitioners to spend some time to read the full report.

The final paper was a case study of the University of Bath’s attempts to create a framework for evaluating widening participation work. They identified clear issues with previous lack of correlation of aims and objectives which made it hard to find a focus for evaluation. For each level of intervention, they identified five dimensions: know, choose, become, practice and understand. They then ensured that there were objectives for each. This then created a much more systematic way of approaching evaluation. What was interesting to reflect upon was how much of the evaluation practioners may often do in a tacit or ad-hoc way as part of their own reflective practice through debriefs but that may not be systematically recorded. What was also useful to reflect upon was the diverse approach to evaluation in terms of measuring understanding through quizzes, surveys, peer evaluation of work and focus groups. One of the challenges when we talk about evaluation can be the narrow conception of evaluation as a paper form and this is something to be reflected upon – the multifaceted dimensions of evaluation and how to capture this effectively in a systematic way.

This second seminar offered much to reflect upon both in terms of what we do but how we measure what is done in widening participation. There can be a tendency to reduce evaluation to a must do task that is reducible to easily reportable numerical data in terms of participation, target groups and engagement but this can miss the transformative power of widening participation which is in many ways the real value of this type of work. It isn’t simply how many students an institution can work with but how many lives this type of work can transform.

(*this is a different interpretation to the original post due to misinterpreting the data)

Full presentations now available here


All by myself? The misrecognition of success as an individual endeavour

In one symposia at BERA conference 2014, there was an interesting comment from the floor that in one village a colleague lived in, there were three millionaires and two were hairdressers. This comment was interesting as after all, not all hairdressers are millionaires . I would argue in fact that those that are often exist as exceptions to the rule. This suggests that there must be other issues in play. Repeatedly at primary age there seems to be a convergence of aspiration around particular careers such as being a vet, a doctor, a lawyer (the mechanism for which I have talked about here) yet rarely do these become realities for these children. I propose therefore that whilst there is a commonality of aspiration, there is a uncommonality in the realities of the existences of these young people.

The recently reported statistic that 71% of judges come from 7% of schools begins to illuminate the issue but I would argue that it is less superficial that a simple financial or educational privilege. The age-old mantra of success breeding success might begin to get to the heart of the issue. In Distinction, Bourdieu talks about different capitals and the importance of certain forms of cultural capital to get on in life. Many of these capitals relate to the ability to network, to form common bonds with others and to fit in, yet the neoliberal agenda and the emphasis on individualised education and meritocracy does not help build this collectivist approach to success but instead keeps returning consistently to one of individualism.

High levels of graduate unemployment often relate to the inability to break into a desired field due to a lack of a route in. In some cases this is due to a lack of financial capital. It is well documented how the media industry often relies on a period of poorly paid or unpaid internships to gain entry to higher level jobs. Other reasons include an absence of jobs within that field in the locality in which they live or simply because many opportunities come not from what is formally advertised but through contacts within the industry and where they are formally advertised, employers often have candidates who are previously known to them earmarked for the job. All three reasons contrast starkly with the discourse that individuals are not trying hard enough to find work or that their degrees are ‘useless’

An emphasis on hard work and striving to make it into a particular career can therefore be seen to be at odds with the structural realities of the employment market and the discourse of striving; success for those who work hard. This individualistic approach is not entirely the model that successful people will follow. There is an element to success that is by its nature collaborative. Be it being seen at the right time by an influential person in the field or knowing someone who can act as a gatekeeper to an employer or a potential business contact, or even just as a mentor for moral support when success takes time so that individual doesn’t abandon their aspiration when faced with obstacles. 

I would argue, therefore that if we are to begin to tackle issues of aspiration, one area of the curriculum in schools that needs to address is that around how to develop these skills, not just in discreet careers education but as a central part of every subject. The use of project based working not just within one classrooms but between classrooms and across geographical boundaries. Helping young people to develop the skills and knowledge that it is ok to work with others to achieve a common goals and that often you need to move outside of their immediate peer group to find the collaboration that will be the most useful in any given circumstance.


Common dreams for an uncommon reality

Throughout the papers during the first day of BERA conference 2014, researchers repeatedly told of young people in their studies who consistently talked of being aspirational in their future career plans and dreams for the future, something which is consistent with my own experience and the blog Kim Allen and myself wrote on this topic recently. Like so many of the young people I work with, there are classed, gendered and ethnocentric elements to this. White working class boys often talk of wanting to be in the armed forces whilst Asian young people often talk of careers with prestige such as in Medicine.

There is, however a discord between these aspirations, the qualifications gained by these young people and the realities of the job market. Through the lens of Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, I would argue what is happening is a creation of legitimacy of certain occupations and a devaluation of others framed by the beliefs and values of those in the upper classes. More often than not this is brought into not just consciously but subconsciously by individuals and communities through their educational practices.

I would argue that current educational policies have served to reinforce this devaluation of more technical occupations and increasing legitimisation of others. For example the introduction of the EBacc measure of GCSE success gives weight to those young people who possess certain levels of academic knowledge in a specific range of subjects and devalues those whose strengths lie within vocational qualifications. Moreover, the reduction in weight in league tables of BTEC qualifications also reinforces this devaluation.

The issue is wider than the policies of secondary schooling; from the differentiated funding streams for STEM subjects in universities and the initiatives to the numerous initiatives to encourage  young people to choose STEM careers over others all work together to legitimise this discourse. By creating this perceived hierarchy of value, is it any surprise that parents who want their children to succeed buy into the discourse of certain careers and subjects being better than others, regardless of the talents or interests of their children?

To break this cycle of devaluation of careers and pathways that may create happier, more successful young people, those who understand the mechanisms at work need to begin to challenge them. By entering into a dialogue with those who perpetuate these myths of ‘better’ careers, more ‘valuable’ degrees or more ‘useful’ subject choices, we can begin to help young people find careers that they want to do and that they will be successful in instead of those which they are led to believe are superior.


The superiority complex of the TeachFirst model

Michael Slavinsky, the Programme director for The Brilliant Club wrote a well reasoned response to my previous blog on TeachFirst which I felt deserved a slightly more in depth and argued response than would be possible in a comment box. Firstly, let me say I have no issues with the individual teachers who pass through the TeachFirst program. I am sure there are many that undertake the program with the same attitude of any other teacher trainee, my issue however is with the philosophy espoused by the program. I strongly support the idea of every child getting the best education for them, but i’m concerned that the model that is promoted by TeachFirst may not always offer the chances that are most suitable for every child.

The initial issue with me originates in the title of the programme: TeachFirst. The fact that it is something to do before going on to better things, expressly leadership and management roles. This is one place where I think the idea is flawed. Teaching is a vocation and something that requires a special sort of person to do well and that should be celebrated and applauded, not seen as something to do on the way to better things, or something to do if your planned career didn’t work out.

My second issue with the model is the transformative nature, the way these trainees are given the status of miracle workers that can fix problems in challenging schools, as if it is the only way and that existing teachers are ‘not good enough’. I think this is one thing that troubled me the most. In their first few weeks, many trainees, including myself, struggle to get the engagement of a class to maintain the required pace of learning. Certainly in my placements, this was addressed by gradual introduction to teaching through starters, team teaching and finally to full lessons. From the portrayal in the program it seems that these trainees were thrown in with a full class on the first day. To me, this is not fair on the children. They may have an excellent subject knowledge, but is does not always translate to the ability to teach. In my mind it is a craft that needs to be learnt and it seems that the model does not allow the space for this although I am more than happy to be corrected on this point if anyone knows differently.

This brings me onto the third point, that of class and portrayal. Michael mentions that the program has many BME entrants or those from non middle-class backgrounds. I would argue, however, that this does not separate the issue that they are bringing in a class based model of what aspiration is. The notion of them being ‘good’ graduates of a ‘good’ university creates an other ing notion of ‘poor’ degrees from ‘poor’ universities. I will to examine this in more depth in a later blog as it is a loaded argument but a key one in order to drill down to one of the areas that I find the most unsettling.

I want to finish by extending an invitation to those readers who disagree with what I am saying. My vision of TeachFirst is that which is portrayed through a lens of TV producers and Marketing literature. If I am wrong, show me. Point me to the graduates that have been accepted from non-Russell group universities and let them tell their stories. Like many people my concern is that every young person has the chance to aspire to what they want to do and be, not what a classed model of society says they should be. For some of them, these paths will be the same, for others they will be very different but I am interested in seeing evidence that every type of aspiration is being valued by the trainees of the model, from the future mechanics and doctors, to the future artists and sports coaches.