Over the last few months, I have been impressed by how those engaged in higher education access and outreach have responded to the challenges caused by the pandemic. As an indicator of the sector’s adaptability, much of this has involved the sharing of ideas and tactics virtually. Although the many webinars have been successful in conveying a range of views, one perspective has tended to be overlooked – that of teachers.
The fact that teachers have been caught up in the eye of the pandemic – managing school closures and endeavouring to deliver the curriculum by whatever means possible – may explain this. However, the position they occupy means they can offer a unique and vital perspective, especially as the new academic year starts. It looks increasingly unlikely that things will return to a pre-pandemic normal.
Despite teachers having so much to contend with, I was able to arrange a conversation (with a purpose) with Andrew McMurray, a teacher and member of his school’s senior leadership team, whose role means he is in regular discussions with colleagues from across the secondary education sector. From his vantage point, outreach has a crucial role to play but how it is delivered needs to change.
The need for outreach
Our conversation opened by exploring the idea that the new school year could see the marginalisation of outreach as schools focus their efforts on making up for ‘six months of missed teaching’ and respond to the advances of outsiders, including universities, by ‘circling the wagons and thinking internally’. However, countering this was the argument that outreach will be required more than ever and this is likely to be the case for four key reasons.
1. The reality of and rationale for higher education
Year 12 and 13 students (aka sixth formers), especially those contemplating university-level study, need to be informed about the ‘reality of higher education’. Andy talked about young people asking ‘why go to university’, especially if, as some of them perceive, it will ‘just be online’. The need for schools to provide this information and advice about post-18 options is encapsulated in Gatsby Benchmark 7, which describes how pupils should have ‘meaningful encounters with higher education’. (There are eight Gatsby benchmarks altogether, which constitute a framework for meeting the legal duty of schools to provide independent careers guidance to pupils.) Therefore, a regulatory imperative underpins the role that outreach can play in communicating what higher education will be like.
2. A widening of the attainment gap
Andy’s deliberations with fellow teachers reflected the belief that lockdown could have had an especially damaging impact on those from poorer backgrounds. Such pupils may be among those to experience the digital divide, in being less likely to have their own laptops and to afford to access the internet. In addition, they may lack suitable study space at home, as well as having parents who might not be able to offer the same levels of support as those of their more affluent peers. This concern is shared by various commentators, as well as the Children’s Commissioner for England, who has warned that ‘school closures are likely to widen the disadvantage gap further’. And this, Andy observed, is where ‘there is an absolute need for outreach practitioners whose interventions can provide subject-level support and enrichment’.
3. A loss of motivation to engage in education
Even more worrying for Andy is the prospect that pupils may have ‘forgotten how to engage in learning’. Underpinning this could be a loss of motivation. Again – and from a regulatory perspective – the same fear was expressed by the Chief Inspector of Schools in England when giving evidence to Parliament. Higher education outreach could play a central role in highlighting the ‘purpose’ of what is being studied and providing a ‘wider perspective’ for pupils engaging in education.
4. Concerns over mental health and wellbeing
Finally, our conversation addressed the prospect that the return to school is accompanied by an ‘awful lot of anxiety and doubt’. Some young people, Andy observed, may not have ‘talked to anyone [outside their immediate family] for months’. Consequently, ‘mental wellbeing’, which, prior to the pandemic schools were already of course recognising and addressing, will be even more important. Once again, this is considered by teachers to be something that outreach practitioners could help to support.
In combination and unchecked, these challenges could, it was claimed, mean a generation lost to the benefits of education. While outreach can play a crucial part in averting this looming crisis, the practical difficulties that may be encountered in providing outreach interventions also need to be acknowledged. Restrictions are likely to be applied on who is allowed into schools and colleges, while pupils may continue to be confined to their assigned groups / bubbles.
Yet, despite these challenges, opportunities for delivering outreach exist. In particular, Andy talks about a blended offer that combines face-to-face with virtual support. Regarding the latter, the potential role of online tutoring and small group mentoring was highlighted. These, Andy argued, could offer young people an opportunity to talk about their concerns, explore their plans and receive guidance regarding educational engagement, as well as providing first-hand insights into the contemporary higher education experience. If delivered in school, these interventions could overcome issues around the digital divide associated with learning at home, while the presence of a teacher during such sessions would address safeguarding concerns.
Our conversation concluded by considering what outreach practitioners could do next. Effective outreach, it was observed, will need to be ‘tailored’ to reflect exactly how individual schools and colleges respond to the ‘new normal’. By doing so, outreach has the potential to make a crucial difference to the prospects of those young people most adversely affected by the pandemic.