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To meaningfully support GCSE attainment, the sector needs to dismantle its assumption of educational expertise and start collaborating effectively

  • 29 March 2024
  • By Alex Blower
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Alex Blower, Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth.

Over the last two years, pressure from policymakers for university outreach teams to play a strategic, proactive role in supporting the GCSE attainment of young people from underrepresented backgrounds has gradually increased. The debate about whether it is something that universities ‘should be doing’ rattles on. But the appointment of John Blake as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS) signalled that attainment-raising activity would be a key feature in the regulatory landscape of widening participation.

In the intervening period, it’s fair to say that the sector has faced somewhat of a scramble. First came a protracted debate over what attainment-raising activity actually is. Then came a conversation about how to design programmes which hold a reasonable chance of achieving success. One of the key challenges inherent within such a process is that there are very few widening participation practitioners in the sector who hold the prerequisite knowledge and expertise to meet such a challenge successfully.

Rather than being populated by experts holding qualifications in youth work or education, the majority of university access and participation teams are staffed by individuals holding little formal experience as educators. Many colleagues will find their way into the work after undertaking casual employment as a student or undertaking an internship with the outreach team for a year after they graduate. Of course, there are more than a few ex-teachers or youth practitioners out there, but we would be naive to think that they were in the majority. Whilst the OfS has published an Attainment Raising Toolkit, and organisations such as TASO have published findings from a Rapid Evidence Review, on the ground it still feels as though university practitioners are scratching their heads and waiting to be told what it is they are expected to do with more clarity. 

Although things are looking a little more joined up on the OfS-funded Uni Connect programme, many universities find themselves having to make a strategic commitment to specific interventions within their new Access and Participation Plans without really having a clue where to start. With deadlines for submission looming, I should imagine that more than a few will be looking at their pre-existing activity and thinking how it can be ‘repackaged’ to fit the regulatory brief.

Taken at face value, it paints rather a bleak picture. It suggests that in all likelihood, university access and participation teams hold neither the knowledge nor the expertise to design and implement rigorous programmes which raise attainment. However, I would argue that this doesn’t mean that universities cannot offer a robust and meaningful contribution to support the educational outcomes of young people in schools. Rather, we just have to think differently about how we do it.

Meaningful collaboration

In many universities across the land, there is an assumption that effective activity in access and participation consists of ‘doing stuff with students’. The vast majority of activity involves presentations and workshops in schools on ‘Why HE?’ or ‘Researching University’, with its link to the Gatsby benchmarks heralded as the golden ticket to allure teachers and careers advisors into partnership working. On campus, it involves summer schools, visit days, and taster sessions using much the same content. It has been the formula of university outreach since I started working in Higher Education back in 2011 and it looks unlikely to change any time soon.

However, if we want to play a serious role in supporting the GCSE attainment of young people from underrepresented backgrounds, we can’t simply add a couple of slides to those presentations on confidence or study skills and call it ‘metacognition’. We need more substance, and that comes through collaborating effectively.

By collaboration, I don’t mean simply outsourcing very similar activity, albeit slightly slicker, to third-sector organisations running tutoring or mentoring programmes. Instead, I mean an approach which takes the university’s civic purpose and commitment to its heart. As part of the Strategic Intervention to support the GCSE attainment of young men who are eligible for Free School Meals, at Arts University Bournemouth we have established Dorset Boys’ Impact Hub. Founded on the assumption that we are in no way shape or form the ‘experts in the room’ when it comes to attainment raising, instead the Hub draws together knowledge and experience from the eleven partner organisations across the region who are. It includes representation from senior leaders in local secondary schools, youth and community organisations, universities and the local authority.

Co-chaired between myself and Deneen Kenchington, the Deputy Headteacher of Ferndown Upper School, the Hub recognises and values the expertise in the room. Rather than imposing a set of outcomes to measure impact based on the higher education vocabulary of ‘successful attainment raising’, conversations turn instead to interventions which support school attendance, improve attitude to learning and reduce instances of internal exclusion. It is led by conversations that teachers, school leaders and Governors care about.

Within this context, the University too has a very clear role; we are there to convene and support. Drawing on our own skills and experience, we can offer activity which complements and augments new interventions or whole-school approaches being piloted by Hub members. We support programme design and evaluation, resource continuing professional development (CPD), and identify much-needed additional funding streams. Through the academic research we have access to, we provide an evidence base on which to trial new activity and assistance in quantifying its success. The Impact Hub is still in the very early stages of its existence, but it has generated energy and is building momentum. Alongside Arts University Bournemouth’s Being a Boy workshop series, there a pilot projects founded in Ulster University’s Taking Boys Seriously principles taking place across four local secondary schools this academic year; training has been organised with all designated teachers for young people in care across at a local authority a conference taking place in November, and a large ‘Dorset Takes Boys Seriously’ event for up to 150 young men taking place at Bournemouth University in July.

In Dorset we have established what we hope will be the first of many regional Impact Hubs across the UK. Forming part of Boys’ Impact, a national network of educators working to support the educational outcomes of young men who are eligible for Free School Meals, the movement is growing. Undertaking strategic activity in research, pedagogy, policy and practice to support the outcomes of young men in their local educational, social, and geographic contexts, it constitutes a new model for collaborative activity by universities. At a local level, we’re already seeing the power it has to engage thousands of young men in equitable conversations about masculinity, their experiences in education and their journey toward a happy healthy future.

Whilst it’s taken hard work and stubborn optimism to establish the Hub over the last 18 months, I wholeheartedly believe that the approach is eminently replicable. Universities can be a powerful convening force over issues related to supporting GCSE attainment, we just might need to think differently about what we do and how. Perhaps most importantly, it starts with dismantling the assumption that we are the experts.

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  1. Gordon Dent says:

    I’ve recently been asked to contribute a “taster” session (I’ve never been sure what that actually means) to this kind of activity. It’s easy enough to spot that it’s supposed to be an attainment-raising input, but I can’t understand how a university lecturer can contribute to attainment-raising at GCSE. I don’t really know what’s in the GCSE curriculum, and I definitely don’t know what’s in the GCSE exams. Raising *attainment* means increasing exam grades; I don’t know how to do that, and I certainly couldn’t do it more effectively than school-teachers. Raising *awareness*, i.e. showing & discussing some real-world applications of things learned in key stage 4, is something I could do, and would greatly enjoy doing. But it won’t make the slightest difference to the students’ exam grades and therefore won’t raise attainment.

  2. As Gordon Dent states, “*attainment* means increasing exam grades”. A worthy objective indeed.

    But one subject to two constraints.

    The first is Ofqual’s policy of ‘no grade inflation’, which requires that the distribution of grades, and the percentage of grades 4 – 9, remains more or less constant year-on-year, with the particular case of the “Forgotten Third”, the one-third of the cohort of GCSE English and Maths students who are condemned to be ‘awarded’, at best, grade 3 ( Across England’s population as a whole, “increasing attainment” is a structural impossibility.

    For an individual, using GCSE grades as the measure of attainment needs to be considered in the context of the results of Ofqual’s research into the reliability – or perhaps unreliability – of exam grades. As discussed in, on average across all subjects, and across GCSE, AS and A level, about 1 grade in every 4 is wrong, with considerable variability by subject (4 in every 100 wrong in Maths, 35 in every 100 in Geography, 44 in every 100 wrong in History).

    For universities to be pro-active in the intellectual development of young people is certainly a ‘good thing’. A pity, though, that this is compromised by the linkage to GCSE grades.

  3. Don says:

    I think you miss the point. GCSE examination is for some the gateway to GCE examination and for some that is a gateway (no longer the only gateway) to Higher EDUCATION (HE) . As a lecturer of a subject in HE you are eminently placed to contribute to the dialogue focusing on why, how, with what content, with what forms of presentation and engagement can the desire to attain a personal, “highest,” be fostered.

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