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

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higher education, PhD, widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening Participation seminar 1

I attended the first in a series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars on researching and evaluating widening participation yesterday. This series aims to blur the boundaries between researchers and practitioners in this area in order to pose questions and challenge to how this work is evaluated and informed by research.

The day consisted of two sociologically focused research papers, a practice case study and then group discussions on questions posed back to the audience. This format was really useful as it allowed us to reflect on the implications and the value of what we had heard earlier in the day.

The first paper by Dr Vikki Boliver used UCAS data to statistically explore the impact of ethnicity on offers by selective universities made to young home applicants. She found that even when data was controlled for other factors such as social class and educational attainment that there was still a significant impact of ethnicity on the likelihood of being made an offer. She  explored a number of commonly given explanations, namely they are less likely to achieve the grades needed for admission, they study the wrong subjects at A-level or they choose highly over subscribed subjects. Her analysis showed that whilst these factors have some effect, they do not fully explain what is happening. She also posed a fourth explanation, that admissions selectors may be seeking to admit a student body that is representative of the wider population. Whilst Ethnicity is not given to selectors, she argued that application forms have many clue in terms of names and what is written in personal statements. One interesting question from this first paper was that if a number of international students are likely to be admitted to an institution, does this make home selection more skewed to white students in order to ensure the cohort is representative of a wider population. Furthermore, how do selectors judge representativeness? Vikki also highlighted the challenges posed to researchers wanting to look into these areas due to the limits on data that UCAS will make public. One suggestion made by the audience was to make is accessible in a anonymised form.

The second paper by Professor David James looked at some issues raised in the study of white middle class school choice that he undertook from 2011-13 with Diane Reay and Gill Crozier. He also highlighted the way in which his study problematises using school postcode data as a way to judge the need for WP interventions for given children. When middle class parents choose to send their children to local schools which may be areas of deprivation, they are often doing so because they understand the system and know that they will get extra attention as they are seen as a valuable commodity. As such, they may be more likely to be selected as ‘gifted and talented’ or put forward for WP interventions, even though they may not be the young people who need these interventions the most.

He also raised important issues around WP research such as what should be the unit of focus, is it the individuals or arguably should we be looking at the systems and structures that shape the actions of individuals? He posed the question of what drives WP policy and practice, highlighting the competing needs of social good and economic needs of both individuals and institutions. Through this paper, David showed the importance of taking a sociological viewpoint on WP, even when working in practice as these sorts of issues may be hidden by a purely data driven view of who WP interventions should be targeted at.

Both these papers and the issues they raised made me consider my own experience as a teacher and the way predicted grades that were submitted to UCAS often became a point of negotiation for middle class parents whereas working class parents often took them as absolutes. This shows the role class may have in privileging the chance of getting offers from more selective institutions.

The final paper was a case study of how Goldsmiths Fine Art programme developed a summer school to make the institution more accessible to local students from FE colleges. They did this through a summer school and ongoing support of portfolio reviews and mock interviews. What was interesting in this case study was the way in which academic staff who were initially resistant to ‘doing WP’ found that these local student have ended up enriching the course and bringing very local issues and experience into the institution. To put a sociological lens onto it, what Goldsmiths did differently was to alter the institutional habitus to make the students feel like part of the institution opposed to bringing them in an expecting them to adapt to the institution. This raises the important question of who needs to change in WP interventions; the individual, or the institution, or is it both?

The final discussion session engaged with many of these issues in more depth, namely those surrounding how these issues should inform admission practices, the access to UCAS data and where the focus of evaluation should be. Given the potential links between names and ethnicity, should applications be anonymised to admissions staff? How can we ensure that these trends and issues can be researched when the data is currently not available at the level of detail needed to do so in order to hold institutions to account? Finally, do we need to do more to show not only the statistical impact of intervention but the rich changes that interventions have, should we perhaps be arguing for reporting that values the submission of case studies as well as broader demographic data?

I believe the sessions will appear as a podcast in the near future and the powerpoints made available through the SRHE website.

The next session is on 9th Feb and booking can be found here

Education, higher education, PhD

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

EdD, PhD, widening participation

Education and equality: A critique of the ‘poverty of aspiration’ agenda

You can find a guest blog from Kim Allen (CelebYouth) and myself on the BERA respecting children and young people blog. This excellent project seeks to stimulate public debate on Social Justice in education in the lead up to the 2015 elections and I am very happy to have contributed to it. It is also my first co-authored piece and I think it turned out rather well.

 

Education and equality: A critique of the ‘poverty of aspiration’ agenda.

Uncategorized

Why I’ve chosen a PhD over the EdD

The decision to do a PhD over and EdD may seem strange given the recent post I made focusing on the benefits of an EdD and showing a slight sway towards this from my original PhD plans. I thought it would be useful to write a short blog to explain why.

I do not plan to rehearse the same arguments as I made in the previous post but to summarise, the two main benefits I saw in the EdD are the presence of a cohort for informal support, the structure to help retain focus during a part time doctorate.

It just so happened that I was put in a enviable position of being able to choose between and EdD and a PhD at the same institution on the same topic, so really this left little to choose from other than the model of delivery. This possibly made it harder than having external factors to shape my choices.

What became clear as I worked through my choices and came up with pros and cons is that both models are good and neither seemed to race ahead from the other in my thinking. What did however shape my final choice was me and my own background and circumstances.

The main differences in essence are that the EdD would have a shorter thesis but with several assessed formal assignments on research methods, policy and theory in the first 3 years. The PhD has a longer thesis but no formal assignments. In terms of an EdD there would be a cohort of at least 10 students all starting the journey together whereas by reading a PhD I would be likely to be one of a much smaller number in the department. Because of my circumstances both would be part-time and both have similar financial implications for me.

After talking to several academics who know me well and a couple I have met on one off occasions, much of what I have been doing over the last few years seems to be developing some of those skills needed for doctoral study. Reading around my interest areas, engaging with theory, attending conferences and building support networks. Given that I have already begun this journey, some of the structure offered by the EdD might have felt slightly restrictive and limited the start I could make from day one. This would also have a knock on effect on giving me more time and space for the data collection phase of my research which, when studying part time, may end up being very important.

In not choosing an EdD, however, I am acutely aware of those parts of the training model that may be lacking and the gaps I need to fill myself, such as the support network that a cohort would provide. I do wonder though if there is a way to re-create this through technology and am working through some ideas of how to do this for maximum benefit.

book review, Education

Book Review: Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education

Within this volume, Brooks, McCormack and Bhopal set out show how the sociology of education can cast a critical eye across the global issues in education from schooling through to university in the mainstream and to the margins. Opening with an outline of the theoretical, political and institutional contexts of the sociology of education, the book gets the reader up to speed with the state of the field before taking them on an editorial journey through the various stages of education by way of an interesting and thought provoking range of chapters based on cutting edge empirical research.

There are a number of chapters on compulsory age schooling examining issues of international comparisons in assessment, citizenship education, academic selection, masculinities, race and gender issues in schools. The most poignant chapter on schooling comes from Carolyn Jackson who explores the issue of fear and anxiety in schools. This is one of the few chapters that focuses on teachers as well as students, an area that on the whole the collection glosses over.  Recent debates surrounding increasing pressure from inspection and policy change on education professionals would suggest that this is an area central to contemporary debates. This however, is a comment as much on the speed of change and the current state of research in the sociology of education as much as it is the book.

The most interesting chapters are those that take the reader those beyond the scope of other texts. Firstly, Kagendo Mutua and Sandra Cooley Nichols chapter on special education in the USA and how gendered identities are constructed within it during adolescence which takes a very different stance on exploring special education provision beyond outcomes and process to explore how individuals develop a sense of identity. There is also an excellent chapter by Steve Roberts focusing on the lifelong educational opportunities of retail workers where he explores the tensions of between an instrumental credentialisation of skills and learning that is useful for life. This chapter is an important contribution as workplace learning is often omitted from debates in the field.

That said, no volume on contemporary debates would be complete without the obligatory chapter on working-class students and university. Wolfgang Lehmann provides this from a Canadian perspective and this highlights another key strength of the volume that in drawing from global perspectives, it helps the reader create a comparison of similarities with more local debates. This is complemented further by Heather Mendick’s exploring issues of the gendered nature of subject selection in Mathematics. Understanding these processes is key if issues of equal access based on gender are to be addressed within STEM subjects.

The final chapter by Keri Facer and Neil Selwyn is a provocation highlighting issues of technology and the importance for sociologists of education to be ready to explore these. They argue that given the ubiquity of technology within all areas of education, that there is sizeable gap in the research literature. In ending on this note, the volume challenges the reader to consider how they can fill this gap and hopefully will act as a stimulus for much needed work in the sociology of educational technology.

This collection serves its purpose of stimulating thought on the contemporary debates of the sociology of education and as such would provide an excellent starting point for those new to the field or who are currently engaged within education but would like to explore a more sociological analysis of some of the issues and challenges they face.

 Reference

Brooks, R., McCormack, M., Bhopal, K. (2013). Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education, Basingstoke; Palgrave macmillan