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

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