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Life as a higher education outreach practitioner: frustrations and solutions

  • 2 January 2020
  • By Beka Avery

This blog was kindly contributed by Beka Avery, NCOP Pathways Project Manager.

As a higher education outreach practitioner, I try to keep up with the latest research, data and academic insights our field; it is interesting and it is important. But day-to-day I am faced with the challenge and the frustration that no matter how robust and informative the data, it is not useful to our schools and colleges in meeting their priorities.

For the past three-and-a-half years I have worked to deliver collaborative outreach projects – programmes that are dependent on universities coming together to deliver impartial information, advice and guidance in innovative new ways. I currently project manage Pathways, one of 29 University partnerships funded until July 2021 through the Office for Students National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP).

Ultimately for the schools and colleges that I work with, widening participation is not on their list of concerns. The gap in participation in higher education was a problem defined by universities and, as is often the case, it is the person who defines what the problem is that determines what data is gathered and how the problem can be solved.

So while being ‘first in the family’ is a characteristic that we know gives us an indication of a student’s likelihood to progress into higher education, schools do not capture this data on admission, nor do they categorise postcodes, because it does not help them keep Ofsted or their governors happy. When we talk about free school meals, Special education needs, or pupil premium, then we are sharing a common concern as schools get measured on how these students progress.

It is not until students progress to sixth form / KS5 that some of the classic widening participation targeting indicators start to be captured. At this point, student destinations are a measure of success or prestige of that post-16 programme, so any contextual admissions to prestigious universities are relevant to know about.

In trying to work with schools through new initiatives in a more targeted way conversations often unfold like this:

Me: ‘Hello School G. I remember from our meeting you mentioned that one of the biggest issues for the progression of your year 10’s is low aspirations. I am pleased to tell you that we have developed an intervention to support you with this’. School

G: ‘Oh that’s fantastic! Where, when and for how many students’ (We have buy-in)

Me: It will be on campus, we can be flexible around you with timings and the initiative is specifically for your students who get free school meals, live in a specific postcode area and who are taking art and design at GCSE. We will need their name, address, date of birth and confirmation that they receive free school meals so we can evaluate the work. I’m sure you understand?

School G: ‘Oh’

In the space of 30 seconds I have lost the buy-in. I have gone from being someone providing help and filling an observed ‘gap’ to someone adding additional paperwork to an already overflowing to-do list. Often the staff member I have been speaking to is nervous of the data protection implications of working with me. This is just me asking for the most basic data. If I were to narrow down my group to ethnicity or looked after young person or carer, I enter into the realms of safeguarding concerns. In schools and colleges disadvantage is often synonymous with vulnerability.

The 2017 Careers Strategy brought a hint of promise in highlighting the Gatsby Benchmarks as a guide to achieving excellence in careers education. These eight benchmarks were developed by Sir John Holman in a report commissioned by the Gatsby Foundation. Their purpose was to highlight what good career guidance in England would look like. Schools and colleges should be aiming to embed all eight into their careers programme by providing students with ‘meaningful interactions’ or insights into these areas.

Benchmark 7 lists ‘Encounters with further and higher education’ as a necessary ingredient in a successful careers education programme. Unfortunately, the next line goes on to state that ‘All students should understand the full range of learning opportunities that are available to them.’ Note the use of ‘All Students’, not a particular targeted group of students who are presently under represented in HE…foiled!

Unfortunately, I often witness this benchmark in action in the form of a ‘Higher Education fair’ often favoured because, as well as universities, local businesses can also be invited meaning benchmark 5, ‘Encounters with employers and employees’ can also be ticked off. But is a higher education fair meaningful and is a student encountering or learning about higher education in this way going to overcome their fears of student finance or their embedded beliefs that higher education is not for them?

There are ways that we are overcoming the barriers we face in trying to access students in schools and colleges. The funding made available through NCOP has provided our partner universities with the resources they need to fund additional staff members that we can base in our schools and who, since January 2017, have built up relationships of trust and confidence with our gate keepers. In time we have found that we can access the data we need because we are understood, we have been able to implement data sharing processes and we can sensitively work with select groups of students within schools or colleges and can evaluate the impact in a useful way.

One the of most striking learnings is that actually, across the country, through their access and participation plans, universities are offering support and provision that will support schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas to provide ‘all students’ with a meaningful encounter with higher education. The problem is that schools and colleges have never heard of them, and so do not know what to ask for other than a stand at a fair.

From my experience where schools are struggling for ideas is with Gatsby Benchmark 4, ‘Linking careers to the Curriculum’. We have found the enthusiasm to have academics or even postgraduate students come into school to enhance the curriculum teaching of GCSE or A-level lessons is overwhelming and, in theory, it doesn’t feel like too much of a challenge to have an academic look over the curriculum or scheme of work and pin point a section that they cover, albeit at a higher level, as part of their course delivery. If they can also nod to an application of this knowledge, technique or process in industry then fantastic, we’ve succeeded.

Then we hit the buy-in wall again. Academics are busy and as well as an outreach agenda, universities also have recruitment targets. As an outreach practitioner, more often than not my boss or my boss’s boss is responsible for recruiting students to the university and this agenda will take priority when it comes to the use of resources. This includes use of the very little time academics are able to commit to work with schools and colleges. Whilst most of our academics won’t be too knowledgeable on the WP agenda or the differential outcomes between certain groups, they do understand that if we don’t get the students, we don’t get the funding and they don’t have a job. The popular assumption is that well intentioned work with schools and colleges and young people outside of the KS5 recruitment age bracket is the role of the outreach teams.

I know it’s my job but the issues are not going to be overcome by hard working outreach teams alone. We know what the data says, we know the importance of targeted, repeat intervention but we cannot deliver what we need too without schools, colleges, academics and colleagues in other government funded teams understanding and taking the issue on board as well.

How can we fix it?

  1. If the data is highlighting important issues that really do affect student’s progression and their outcomes in the work place, schools need to be educated on this and it needs to be made part of their administrative data capture.
  2. Approaches to careers education need to be joined up between all government departments and affiliated organisations. If schools and colleges with high proportions of disadvantaged students do not see the relevance of the work in relation to their objectives or Ofsted then, due to the need to prioritise, they are unlikely to do it.
  3. Schools and colleges where target student groups are educated should have a say in and be able to contribute too or scrutinise universities access and participation plans to ensure understanding and feasibility. Guidance around careers education in schools and colleges needs to be more transparent by highlighting what is and what is not considered to be meaningful.

HEPI has published widely on issues surrounding widening Participation. To start your 2020 widening participation reading off on the right foot, we have drawn together a short, a medium and a long read on widening participation for you to peruse:

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  1. Thank you, Beka, for this really excellent and insightful dissection of some of the problems with HE outreach and the mismatch of priorities between unis and schools/colleges, which is, in large part down to a lack of joined-up government in DfE over careers education and social mobility – a failure to think through how conflicting incentives play out in reality.
    There is a fundamental dilemma at the heart of HE access which the Government has continued to dodge in its policies: to be a fairer society, we want a great number of disadvantaged people entering HE (or a a more equal proportion at least), but it is unethical and sanctimonious to attempt to tell any individual what choices they should make.
    A positive choice not to go to uni needs to be respected in the data as much as a choice to do so. It’s an almost impossible ask to capture that degree of relativism in any data model. The incentives embodied in the metrics used for universities on the one hand and for schools on the other certainly don’t even try, let alone succeed.
    Quite apart from the problems in principle that beset HE outreach teams working with schools, I could have added endlessly to Beka’s list of things that just don’t work in practice. For example, the DfE and OfS want outreach that targets the most disadvantaged learners, but you can’t ask a school to pull out ‘the poor kids’ from a class to be targeted. Even if there weren’t time-tabling impracticalities, the public marginalisation of those students would be utterly unacceptable.
    We need to learn to live with the fact that, sometimes, raising the level for everyone is the best way of delivering the most help to those who need it most. That doesn’t mean we can’t target support as well, but ‘buy-in’ – which Beka writes about in terms of schools, but it’s even more important for pupils too – needs to be won first. Outreach cannot be delivered with drive-through interventions.
    To this end, Beka’s point about careers fairs is spot-on: more often than not, these are sales events for universities, not meaningful outreach. The students who approach a stall aren’t the hard-to-reach. They’re the keen-to-buys. Realistically, it’s about changing where they go, not whether they do. Careers fairs also depend on a school having sufficient student numbers to make it worth hosting a fair, not to mention the facilities (such as a large hall that can be surrounded for a day), the progression rate and the proximity to several unis and employers.
    That means the students we most want to reach are still left out in the cold: those with high potential in low progression schools in remote areas. That’s not what the Sir John Human or the Gatsby Benchmarks had in mind.
    We’ve come a long way since I wrote a piece for The Guardian on some of the challenges for universities in delivering outreach ( At the time, it annoyed some people in HE outreach, but many – including Beka above – now espouse an updated version of what I was saying then. OFFA and HEFCE also recognised the need for a more collaborative approach with the introduction of the NNCO and, more recently NCOP. The Gatsby Benchmarks also reflect some of the points I raised.
    There ARE still ways we can make outreach more effective. (I commend all of Beka’s recommendations.) We need to be less hamstrung by poor proxies of disadvantage and more attuned to what works in terms of influencing – but not determining – young people’s choices. (I have high hope for TASO (the new Centre for Transforming Access and Student Opportunities).
    Sorry to end this comment with what may come across as a plug: but the outreach work that is conducted by Push, the non-profit outreach organisation that I run, has been designed around exactly the interventions that win buy-in among the hardest-to-reach students. It’s based on the research about behaviour and choice, not the box-ticking of data about target groups.
    This is what we need more of as part of a blended and systematic approach (what I sometimes call ‘continuous and contiguous’ outreach). I’d be delighted to talk to anyone about how and why works and urge you to copy what we do. Steal it. Please.
    We shouldn’t be surprised that, by thinking about what works, how and why, you can be more effective than by creating perverse incentives for schools and unis based on flawed data (such as POLAR).

  2. Jon Cheek says:

    Excellent blog. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The challenge I face, working in an FE college, is the assumption on the part of HEIs that we cannot help ourselves. We can. We are not here to provide HEIs with statistics for their WP plans. HEIs would do well to reflect on how it may feel to be on the receiving end of of offers of ‘help’ which come with a rider of ‘give us access to your students so we can hit our targets’. Had it today and it really smarts.

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