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Levelling Up: How not to let the opportunity pass – an APP case study

  • 12 February 2024
  • By David Woolley
  • This piece was kindly authored for HEPI by David Woolley, Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University (NTU).

The HE sector is in danger of letting a major opportunity pass by due to its tendency to focus on what it does do, not what it could do. 

Whatever colour of Government we have over the next five years, surely the Levelling Up agenda is here to stay.  This presents a continuing opportunity for HE to improve its relationships with both the Government and the broader public.  It should enable universities to reframe the debate and show the broader societal value they bring, instead of the continual focus on individuals – a message they have failed to deliver in recent years. That failure is, in part, driven by the government and the media’s presentation of issues. But it is also driven by the sector’s tendency to focus on what it is already doing, how it is already contributing, how it is already operating in left behind areas

No doubt the level of contribution is accurate, but given the challenge of Levelling Up has arisen over many years, and universities have been doing this work for many years, it raises questions about its relevance or effectiveness. Things won’t improve by continually doing the same thing. 

For any organisation, including a university, to genuinely contribute to the Levelling Up agenda, it needs to move on from a mindset of self or organisation interest to a focus on collective interest.  A university needs to make sure it is not consciously or unconsciously reinforcing the situation through protecting its own interests or the way it frames issues through its mental models or inherent bias.

An access and participation project at NTU adopted this approach and has achieved remarkable initial results which still meet our own agendas.

NTU has a wide-ranging programme in the areas of Mansfield and Ashfield which seeks to investigate how a HEI can utilise its resources and capability to support a ‘left-behind’ area. This has included establishing a physical location in the area. Mansfield has one of the lowest attainment rates in the country which presents a range of problems including progression to our centre. Raising attainment is therefore a key challenge for this project.   

But rather than just replicate existing programmes, which would risk reinforcing the current situation, we investigated why there was poor GCSE performance in the first place. Our work revealed that this could be traced back to poor primary school performance and then to the fact that too many children were going to primary school not ‘ready’ to learn; that is they hadn’t always eaten, couldn’t hold a pencil, on occasion basic hygiene was a problem – issues which have all had some publicity of late. Teachers were required to spend their time attending to these issues and not teaching. Understandably this was affecting attainment at Key Stage 1 and then throughout their educational career. Our research revealed a whole host of reasons for the pupils not ‘being ready’: poverty; a family’s prior experience with authority (frequently negative); poor working practices between different governmental services; attitudes of professionals (and to be fair, sometimes parents/carers).   

The issue was clearly a systemic one and with a systemic problem, you take a systemic approach. You move away from looking at single issues or programmes and you identify all the actors that touch the issue, explore the relationships among these actors and how these impact on the issue you want to change.   You then convene these actors into a group to address. And who, in today’s fragmented ‘post-austerity’ system, has more convening power than a university?

We used that power to establish ‘Getting School ready’ – a genuine collaborative partnership between NTU,  local schools and services and families. All partners committed to addressing the root causes that affect children being school ready, not by running any intervention in the area, but through improving the quality of their relationships. The project uses a framework that places equity at the heart of the stakeholder relationship and gives parents/carers opportunities to work with professional services and shape aspects of service delivery.  This creates a better social ecosystem to produce improved school outcomes.  

We piloted this programme in one local community.  The primary school there had approximately 75% Pupil Premium and its 2018 Ofsted report judged the school to be inadequate overall.  Its more recent OfSted inspection, which occurred after 2 years of this programme, judged it to be good in all areas – a jump of two places. Furthermore the Key Stage 1 phonics pass rate and the Key Stage 2 outcomes in reading are now the highest they have ever been.   

Whilst the success is clearly the school’s (much more happened there than just this project), the teachers, the Multi-Academy Trust and the community were kind enough to credit the part NTU played in empowering the community in this success. It was also highlighted in the OfSted report – upon request from the parents.

This is encouraging progress. But it is relatively small scale and a long way back in the educational journey (although still meets our Access and Participation requirements). The next step is to take it from a single school to an area which is a significant challenge.  But the point is we never would have had this possibility had we not changed our mindset and adopted a more collaborative, common approach.  Had we simply showed or replicated our existing contribution undoubtedly would have had the same results and nothing much will have changed – opportunity lost.

At least now we have the beginnings of a new tool in our arsenal and we can show the Government and the local community that we are genuine partners in this enterprise and thus help with resetting the relationship with both.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    I am very pleased to have read this article and the thoughts behind the project as I have been making similar observations for over 20 years.

    We will never achieve much wider participation for those from disadvantaged backgrounds without intervening at a very early stage. The earlier the better. It must involve 3 generations of families and shouldbe funded for at least 10 years with careful evaluation.

    This will mean cut backs to the current type of support for the pilot areas chosen to test thenew approach.

    To benefit children from birth through to age 18 reqires not only their parents but their grandparents to be involved. Three generations need to be better informed and convinced of the benefits of an extended education to age 18 and beyond.

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