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Widening participation at our most selective universities

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Andrew Berwick is the director of The Access Project, an educational charity that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach selective universities. He is in equal measures excited by the increasing democratisation of university access in the UK, and angry at the lack of progress in helping our least privileged young people to reach the most selective institutions.

Several employees of The Key currently volunteer for the charity as tutors.

Every year for the last decade, around 45 students eligible for free school meals matriculated at Oxford and Cambridge. This is within a combined undergraduate intake of around 6,500. I run a charity called The Access Project: we believe this situation is unacceptable, and we currently work with 16 partner schools to try to widen participation at our most selective universities. In large part this involves working with our schools to build a culture of aspiration to university, and also managing the process of helping students to apply to university through Years 10-13.

Helping students aspire to and reach university is not a new endeavour. However, it does seem to be particularly relevant now:

  • The DfE’s progression measures at KS5 now require schools to report on progression to university (broken down by all universities, the top third of selective universities, and the Russell Group). This is a (surprisingly) recent innovation: these were first published only two years ago
  • As highlighted by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent annual report, the next 4-5 years is make or break time in terms of widening participation to our most selective universities

Given this background, I wanted to share some common themes around how our schools develop an ethos of university aspiration – and how they’ve supported their students to get there. Because of our mission as a charity, and the profile of the schools we work with, a lot of what I discuss will be particularly relevant to students from disadvantaged backgrounds; however, I suspect that similar approaches will also be of benefit in schools in other areas.

Raising the bar in terms of aspiration

If students don’t believe that university is a viable option for them then this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a recent King’s College London study of Year 8 students, 91% of those with high levels of ‘cultural capital’ aspired to go on to study at university, versus 47% of those with low cultural capital.

Many of our schools adopt a very direct approach to promoting the value of university study, and trying to normalise this for their students. This includes messaging from the very top, through the school’s mission statement, and also day-to-day reminders of the importance of university. This can be highlighting ‘university words’ when advanced vocabulary is touched upon in class, or through signs on teachers’ doors ‘advertising’ where that member of staff went to university.

Our experience leaves little doubt that this approach contributes to a culture of aspiration and expectation in terms of university progression. However, there are two potential drawbacks. The first is that university study will not be the best option for all students – balancing the promotion of the importance of university study and the importance of choosing the right option for each student is very difficult indeed.

The second drawback is that aspiration only goes so far. Paul Tough discusses in How Children Succeed how converting the motivation to achieve a long-term goal (e.g. going to university) into the day-to-day volition that enables you to take the actions to get there is a significant challenge.

Mix of attainment and aspiration

We take this last point very seriously. All the research we read - and our own experience of working in schools in areas of disadvantage - suggests that there are many students from less-privileged backgrounds who aspire to study at great universities. However, only a very small number achieve the grades necessary to go on to the most selective universities.

For this, they need to achieve at or around ABB at A-level to be accepted. Although there is limited data on how high academic attainment is impacted upon by socioeconomic disadvantage, indicative evidence suggests that the gap between rich and poor at the top end of the attainment spectrum may actually have grown in the last decade. (In 2003 1.0% of FSM students achieved 5 A*-As at GCSE, vs 6.8% of non-FSM students. By 2009 the gap had grown from 5.8ppt to 7.3ppt.)

How schools go about raising the attainment of their most under-represented groups of students is clearly a core element of school leadership. Schools in the Access Project seek in part to address this issue through our academic support. I know many schools that also believe in the effectiveness of other external providers such as Teach First’s Futures programme and The Brilliant Club.

Structuring a coherent programme

Finally, what do strong university application programmes look like? The strongest programmes recognise the importance of starting early (so as to address incipient issues of aspiration), of intervening at the right time (e.g. in Years 9 and 11 ahead of KS4 and KS5 options choices, on results day), and of differentiating provision to different groups of students.

There are challenges to making this work. Running a consistent programme from Year 7 to Year 13 usually involves working across 3 Key Stage teams, all with different priorities. Only Key Stage 5 leadership will likely consider university progression a direct outcome of their work. Additionally, it is unlikely that the same member of staff will remain in post long enough to see a group of students through the programme from Year 7 to Year 13. This makes assuring consistency and accountability challenging.

The most effective solutions to this are reassuringly old-fashioned. A programme will only work where it is driven and visibly supported by the senior leadership team. This is important when, for example, visits to universities clash with the curriculum. There are strategic decisions to be made, and all school staff need to recognise the long-term importance of university interventions.

In terms of consistency and accountability, the most impactful way of driving change I have seen is through giving a member of teaching staff significant amounts of non-teaching time to manage this programme. This is a genuine development opportunity that is tied to clear outcomes for the school – KS5 progression – bringing accountability and a sense of urgency to the role.

For more information about this issue in general I recommend taking a look at the HE Academy, and also this review of successful practice across different schools by the DfE from earlier this year. If you’d like to find out more about The Access Project or stay in touch then contact us at [email protected]

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