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Learning from lockdown: how outreach can respond to the needs of today’s learners

by Neil Raven

The teacher perspective

One of the challenges widening participation practitioners have faced in recent times has been in maintaining regular contact with schools and colleges, as these institutions wrestle with the uncertainties wrought by the pandemic. Yet, the teacher perspective is central to understanding local outreach needs, as well as what works and, indeed, could work.

Over the last few months, I have been fortunate to have remained in regular contact – albeit virtually – with a highly experienced teaching professional. Andy McMurray is a teacher and member of the senior management team at an inner city comprehensive with a predominantly white working class catchment. He is also the academy’s outreach lead and, in this capacity, can offer a perspective based on many years of supporting fair access initiatives at a number of schools and colleges.

Conversations with a purpose

Our discussions during this period can best be described as ‘conversations with a purpose’, or motive. Swain and Spire describe this approach to data gathering as one that has been rather ‘under-used’ in educational research. Yet, such conversations have the potential to produce rich, in-depth insights, which, given the more free-flowing nature of the interaction, can be ‘more authentic’ than those generated through more formal and staged interviews. Moreover, through the process of exploring and assessing concepts and ideas, and ‘generating knowledge and understanding’, Feldman suggests that these conversations can also serve as the research ‘methodology.’ Our initial discussions related to the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on young peoples’ educational ambitions and intentions. However, our more recent set of conversations have been concerned with what outreach interventions have worked during the last academic year, and, looking ahead, what initiatives could work.

What has worked during recent months

Although a number of planned university visits during the winter and spring terms had to be ‘abandoned’, Andy discussed the positive reaction that a series of online lectures offered to year 12s and 13s (sixth formers) had received. Described as ‘very powerful’, these had proved successful because they were ‘not just one-off lectures’. Instead, they involved the students taking part in a course linked to the subjects they were studying for their A-level, and which involved them ‘sending in an essay’ and receiving feedback. The impact, it was added, was that the course cultivated a sense that ‘they are university students.’ As evidence of this intervention’s effectiveness, Andy talked about how ‘the students were keen to discuss what they had been doing. Moreover, through engaging with the course the students had acquired ‘subtle’, and transferable, ‘skills in how you learn online’. In this respect, Andy’s expectation – shared by a number of commentators – is that that ‘more online learning’ will be built into future undergraduate programmes.

What needs to be addressed

Yet, Andy was also realistic about the longer-term impact of this intervention. It had certainly ‘stoked students’ enthusiasm and nurtured confidence in their academic abilities’. It had also helped inform them about the choice of post-18 institutions. However, these sessions were directed at those on level 3 (advanced) programmes, who, in many instances, were committed to their studies and were already exploring the HE option. Consequently, there remained a need to focus on those at an earlier stage in their educational journeys and before crucial post-16 study decisions were made. Failure to engage and support these younger people could, it was suggested, be very costly. ‘Unless something is done for them, we could lose a generation to HE. Once they have left at the end of year 11, we will not get a lot of them back.’

What could work

  • Form and format

Asked what would work for younger learners, especially those in years of 9, 10 and 11 – and who had embarked on their GCSEs – Andy’s response was that they need the same type of intervention as that offered to their older peers. Specifically, the suggestion was for a short programme of sessions delivered once a week. Andy was quite clear about the number. Whilst doubts were expressed about the enduring impact of a one-off intervention (an assessment supported by recent research), a series of four to five sessions could have a significant positive and cumulative effect. It would also help cultivate a sense of belonging and being a ‘member of the gang’. In contrast, a larger number of sessions could be judged to be ‘too much’, and may lead to participants being less likely to ‘commit’. In terms of duration, the suggestion was for individual sessions to run for between 40 minutes to an hour, and comprise short, focused segments. In order to support engagement, interactive exercises within these sessions were also emphasised.

  • Content

Andy was equally clear about the content of these sessions. The temptation amongst outreach practitioners might be to offer revision workshops, or cover aspects of the GCSE syllabus. Both of these would likely generate little interest and enthusiasm. If it involves revising ‘GCSE French, they will not want to do that’, and they will ‘push against sessions’ that are based, for example, on the science curriculum, since that is what they do ‘in the classroom’. Instead, it was argued that, whilst subject-focused, these sessions should place the topic being studied in class into a wider context. This could be achieved by exploring its real word application, and informing them of why, for instance, ‘they are covering this subject in physics.’ Yet, this would still have a significant benefit for their GCSEs. It would generate an excitement in what they are doing, and ‘make their teacher’s job easier because they can see a significance to it.’

In sum, Andy argued that such sessions have the capacity to spark participants’ ‘interest in learning.’ However, to do this the content would need to go beyond the simple ‘whizz bang stuff’, and edutainment, which, it was observed, is transient and something ‘the student will see through.’ Rather, they would need to involve ‘actually learning something’. Whilst these sessions should be led ‘by someone with personality’ and who would engage the students, they would also need to be ‘delivered seriously.’

  • The undergraduate experience

Our conversation also acknowledged the value of involving university students in these sessions, ideally comprising those from comparable backgrounds to the participants, who, Andy observed, would ‘talk with an accent they’d recognise’. Exploring this further, it was suggested that this undergraduate component could capture the students when they were learning. For instance, when ‘working in the lab, on a production, or involved in a seminar discussion.’ It could also feature them studying in their ‘dorms’. As opposed to a more conventional tours of students flat, this would be provide an insight into student accommodation ‘in a real life context and from the students’ perspective.’

Whilst one of the underlying intentions of this component would be to communicate I was in your position three years ago, Andy emphasised that this message should be left to the audience to deduce, rather than being stated by some form of accompanying commentary. The young people, it was added, will ‘know that.’ There was also a need to avoid the ‘hard sell’ of HE. ‘Year 9s know what is going on and they will assume you are trying to make money out of them and being paid to say that.’ Instead, the underlying assumption should be that higher education is ‘the expectation’. It should be ‘a given that they will be going to university. If something is really good there, you don’t need to spend time justifying it!’

  • Underpinning the impact

Whilst Andy argued that such an intervention could make a real difference to the outlooks and engagement of the young people involved, its impact could be further enhanced – and underpinned – by awarding participants a certificate denoting their completion of the course and outlining the themes addressed and associated learning outcomes. This, it was added, could then be referenced in their personal statements and the CVs they prepare for both their college and university applications.

  • Follow-up ideas

Whilst the four to five online sessions could represent a self-contained intervention, the potential for a follow-up set of activities was also acknowledged. Should conditions permit, Andy talked about the positive effect that could arise from a visit to the school by the lecturer who had given the virtual talks and the undergraduates that had also featured. Moreover, the lifting of further restrictions associated with the pandemic would present the opportunity for the students to ‘visit the university’ and see the facilities associated with the subjects covered in the online talks. And perhaps witness at first-hand how the students use some of the science and engineering equipment, or even take part in the drama performance they had seen being rehearsed online. This it was concluded, would ensure that it represents a really ‘serious’ intervention.

Whilst our discussions drew to close on this positive note, they concluded with an important proviso, and one that reflects outreach at its best: that it is a collaborative endeavour between schools, colleges and HE providers that requires an ongoing and open dialogue. Arguably, conversations with a purpose afford one mechanism for achieving this.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

References

Buitendijk, S (2021) ‘If we get it right, digital and online learning will change the world’, WonkHE (7 June) https://wonkhe.com/blogs/if-we-get-it-right-digital-and-online-learning-will-change-the-world/

Feldman, A (1999) ‘The role of conversation in collaborative action research’, Educational Action Research, 7:1, 125-147, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09650799900200076

Moore, J, Sanders, J and L Higham (2013) Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education.  Report to HEFCE and OFFA by ARC Network https://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Literature-review-of-research-into-WP-to-HE.pdf

Patel, R and L Bowes (2021) Third independent review of impact evaluation evidence submitted by Uni Connect partnerships, Office for Students. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/third-independent-review-of-evaluation-evidence-submitted-by-uni-connect-partnerships/

Raven, N (2021) ‘Teaching and transitions: understanding classroom practices that support higher education progression in England’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 26:2, 189-211 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13596748.2021.1909924?journalCode=rpce20

Raven, N (2020) ‘Outreach should be tailored to the new normal for schools and colleges’, Higher Education Policy Institute. Blog (7 September), https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/09/07/outreach-must-tailor-itself-to-the-new-normal-in-schools-and-colleges/.

Swain, J and Z Spire (2020) ‘The Role of Informal Conversations in Generating Data, and the Ethical and Methodological Issues They Raise’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research21(1). https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/3344/4511.

Tzirides, AO, Kalantzis, M and B Cope (2021) ‘Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world’, SRHE Blog (11 January). https://srheblog.com/2021/01/11/reimagining-higher-education-in-the-post-pandemic-world/


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More important than ever: the school perspective on outreach in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

By Neil Raven

In recent months the attention of those working to widen university access has been directed towards understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools and colleges. However, there is now a need to look further ahead. It seems increasingly unlikely that the new school year will witness the resumption of traditional outreach activities. Indeed, it is possible that those engaged in widening access may be crowded out, as schools and colleges focus on catching up on months of missed work, and as restrictions placed on external visitors and visits by groups of pupils limit opportunities to interact with students. Drawing on the findings from a recent virtual workshop held with teaching and careers professionals at one school, a proportion of whose pupils come from educationally deprived areas, this blog explores the role that widening access could play when the new school term starts and how outreach could be effectively delivered.

The focus on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people from under-represented backgrounds has been reflected in recent reports and studies. Responding to the lockdown and the closure of schools and colleges has been a necessary first step. However, we also need to look further ahead. It seems unlikely that the new school year will mark a return to more ‘normal’, pre-pandemic conditions, including the resumption of outreach activity as ‘traditionally’ practised.

When the new school term starts, widening participation could be crowded out (displaced) for two reasons. First, with many young people having been away from school – and formal education – for the best part of six months, the need to concentrate on the curriculum and catch up on what has been missed is likely to be uppermost in teachers’ minds. Should they decide to ‘circle the wagons’, as one teaching contact put it, then outreach might be viewed as a luxury, perhaps even a distraction from the core mission.

The second reason is more practical, in terms of delivering outreach. As Savage suggests, schools are very unlikely to ‘fully re-open’ in September. There may be restrictions on external visitors and outside visits by parties of pupils. Even if external visitors are allowed, the way classes are organised – in peer group bubbles with limits on the numbers congregating in any one place – may well hamper outreach efforts. The threat of sudden local, regional or even national closures should new coronavirus outbreaks occur, would see a halt to any face-to-face and school-based encounters.

However, this is speculation: we need to gather the teaching professionals’ perspective. They are busy individuals facing an unprecedented set of challenges in preparing for the new term, but I was able to arrange a meeting with a small group from one secondary school, a proportion of whose pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That this could be done virtually was a significant advantage, with two of the three participants working from home. It was also conducted on an online platform that these teaching professionals have become very familiar with over recent months. Our discussion took the form of a small workshop with those who could bring a strategic as well as operational perspective. All three had remits that encompassed careers and progression in their roles as deputy head, head of careers, and careers co-ordinator respectively. In addition, the classroom viewpoint was covered since one of the participants was also a teaching member of staff. Consequently, we were able to consider the school’s perspective on outreach, the nature of the outreach challenge faced by its pupils, and what a realistic outreach response might be.

The first reaction of the group was to reject the idea that the objectives of widening access would have to be set aside. Indeed, it was argued that the need to raise awareness and interest in higher education remained highly relevant. In this 11-16 school, this was seen in the context of ensuring students were as ‘prepared as possible’ in terms of the ‘skills and knowledge’ needed for making a successful transition to post-16 study, as well as in being aware of their options at 18. Whilst this was an institutional obligation, it also chimed with a wider ‘social responsibility’, given the ‘make up of our students and the [lower socio-economic] backgrounds some come from’. There was an imperative to ‘get them to aim high’ and support them in fulfilling their ambitions. ‘Without the input from externals’ this was likely to be a harder task.

Similarly, in reply to the suggestion that there would be a considerable opportunity cost to pay for engaging in outreach activity, in terms of the time and energy diverted away from ‘getting on with the curriculum’, reference was made to Gatsby benchmark 4. There is a regulatory requirement that schools and colleges deliver independent careers guidance and the eight Gatsby benchmarks constitute a recommended framework for doing this. This particular benchmark is concerned with embedding careers into the curriculum. In this respect, it was noted that if ‘you are asking staff to spend [a few] minutes saying this will be useful because it can lead you into this job and that job’, then that would not represent a distraction but an important component of their education.

These teaching professionals felt that the need for outreach will become more acute:  the start of the new term would probably reveal additional challenges, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school staff referred to the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, something also recognised in recent studies. Some students, it was argued, will ‘definitely need emotional support, including in cases where parents have been shielding, or where parents who have lost their jobs’.

Another potential issue concerned students’ ‘ability to study’. Some, it was argued, may have lost their ‘sense of routine’ and it is going to be a ‘challenge to get [them] back into [a] work ethic, [especially] if they have not done much’, or have not been able to do much ‘outside school’. Linked to this were concerns over levels of motivation. Some year 10s (14 year olds) may be questioning how they can ‘pass their exams when they have missed so much work’, whilst there was also a concern that some students could, potentially, have become ‘disengaged’. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation discussed a similar ‘risk’ associated with ‘high levels of absence after schools formally reopen’, especially amongst disadvantaged pupils.

It might be claimed that to address such issues represents a case of mission drift for widening access practitioners whose main concern is to support HE progression. The counter argument is that these additional challenges are likely to fall disproportionately on those groups of young people targeted by outreach initiatives. Moreover, the impact of those challenges may not only hinder their educational engagement but negatively affect their progression prospects.

There is also the question of whether delivering outreach might in practice be crowded out. The reality of this challenge was recognised by the group, with reference made to the improbability of being able to engage in the outreach interventions the school has received in the past, whilst ongoing ‘projects’ targeting various under-represented groups were judged unlikely ‘to happen any time soon’ due to social distancing restrictions. However, a revised and blended approach that included some face-to-face engagement but where greater emphasis was placed on online provision, could work.

Regarding the former, it was suggested that any visitors would need to engage with small groups (or bubbles) of learners, and to work within the classrooms pupils will be assigned to for all their lessons. Turning to virtual initiatives, the school was already exploring placing their post-16 options evening – which includes input from local colleges and universities – online, as well as providing ‘extra information’ on the school’s website for parents and carers, including those with older learners. This would include advice on how parents can support year 11s (15 year olds) in preparing for their next post-16 steps, and that could ‘mirror’ the guidance this year group receive in school about college and sixth choices and the accompanying application processes.

The group also discussed how the virtual outreach offer could be developed. Here reference was made to the value of both universities and colleges (including those with HE programmes) providing videos of what higher-level study would be like. These, it was suggested, could include ‘a day in the life of a student’ and outline the range and types of courses available. Such insights and information were likely to be especially appealing if the students profiled were interviewed and if the videos also showed them attending their classes, as well as illustrating the social activities available and what ‘living in halls is like’.

There was also a need for ‘positive role models’ who, if they were not able to visit the school in person, could do so virtually. Those ‘who have had to cope with [challenging] situations and come through them’ were, it was suggested, likely to have particular appeal. Developing this idea, reference was made to ‘someone who could talk about their difficult journey to university and how they had triumphed over adversity’. That, it was added, ‘would be really useful’ since it is ‘about making positive choices’, especially if these individuals were close to the age of the students they would be talking to.

Mentoring was singled out as a particularly valuable intervention that could, if required, be conducted online. If the sessions took place in school and were supervised by a member of staff, safeguarding measures could be more easily met. Indeed, it was suggested that the challenge could be in securing enough mentors to meet the demand, especially if what was offered included elements of subject enrichment and study support.

Similarly, an online option for embedding careers into the curriculum was identified. Short 3-4 minute videos could be shown in class featuring those in graduate-level occupations talking about what their roles involve and how they trained to do their jobs. These would be especially welcomed if they related to the subjects the students were studying. Such videos could provide a ‘360 degree view of where’ their subjects work. In addition, longer versions of these videos could be shown during registration period, when ‘we do job of the week’. Being aired in class or during registration could also overcome issues around digital access at home and, the ‘digital divide’ that means some learners, often those from poorer backgrounds, have comparatively limited access to the internet, due to a lack of laptops and other devices, as well as the necessary and often expensive data.

Finally, whilst pre-recorded video content had a number of advantages, notably in being accessible whenever required, there could be a role for live links, as long as the technology was in place. Motivational speakers telling their story in real time was likely to have a greater impact than if their message was recorded. Live coverage also offered the chance for interaction with presenters.

In closing, the group emphasised the imperative for outreach practitioners to listen to schools and colleges. Whilst this has always been the case, the need to pay careful attention is perhaps more critical than ever, given that individual institutions are likely to vary in the arrangements they make for the new school year. A small, virtual workshop of the type adopted here may offer a suitable mechanism for gathering these insights and in facilitating the co-production of an effective outreach response to the challenges (both old and new) facing those from under-represented backgrounds.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

My thanks to Suzanne Whiston, Deputy Head, Jan Woolley, head of careers, education and guidance, and Tim Taylor, careers lead, at Murray Park School, Derby, for their time, insights and expertise.

References

Armour, S (2020) ‘Young men most likely to break lockdown rules, mental health study shows’ (7 May) University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/young-men-most-likely-break-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-psychology-mental-health-study-1.888316

Booth, S (2020) ‘Heads reissue calls for a plan B as PM says September reopening a ‘national priority’’ (31 July)  Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/heads-reissue-calls-for-a-plan-b-as-pm-says-september-reopening-a-national-priority/.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (2020) Gatsby Benchmark,https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/schools-colleges/gatsby-benchmarks/gatsby-benchmark-8.

Cornforth, C (2014) ‘Understanding and combating mission drift in social enterprises’, Social Enterprise Journal, 10 (1): 3-20, https://oro.open.ac.uk/39882/1/SEJ%20paper%202013%20revised-final.pdf.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment Impact of school closures on the attainment gap,https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf.

DfE (2018) Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Statutory guidance for governing bodies, school leaders and school staff  Department for Education,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748474/181008_schools_statutory_guidance_final.pdf.

Helm, T and McKie, R (2020) ‘Teachers and scientists sound alarm over plans to reopen schools in England’ (2 August The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/01/now-teachers-sound-alarm-over-plans-to-reopen-schools.

Helm, T, McKie, R and Sodha, S (2020) ‘School closures ‘will trigger UK child mental health crisis’’ (20 June) The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-health-crisis

Horrocks, S (2020) ‘Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality’, Education Development Trust

https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on.

O. Khan. 2020. ‘Covid-19 must not derail efforts to eliminate equality gaps’, WonkHE, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/covid-19-must-not-derail-efforts-to-eliminate-equality-gaps/

Machin, S, and Murphy, R  (2014) ‘Paying Out and Crowding Out? The Globalisation of Higher Education’, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No 1299http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60451/1/dp1299.pdf.

Moss, G (2020) ‘5 reasons to be cautious about estimates of lockdown learning loss’ (1 August) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-estimates-of-lockdown-learning-loss/.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2020. Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4073/schools_responses_to_covid_19_pupil_engagement_in_remote_learning.pdf (accessed: 22 June 2020).

Office for Students (2020) Uni Connect https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Ørngreen, R, and Levinsen, K (2017) Workshops as a Research Methodology

Rainford, J (2020) ‘Moving widening participation outreach online: challenge or opportunity?’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (online 30 June 2020)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2020.1785968?needAccess=true.

Raven, N (2018) ‘The development of an evaluation framework’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22 (4), 134-140

Raven, N (2020) ‘Covid-19 and outreach: the challenge and the response’, Widening participation and lifelong learning, 22(2) 255-263.

Roach, P (2020) ‘The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils’ (4 May) Schools Week

Robinson, G (2020) ‘The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students’ (29 May) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/the-digital-divide-continues-to-disadvantage-our-students/

Savage, M (2020) ‘Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’ (31 May) The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/31/full-september-return-unlikely-with-schools-warning-its-not-business-as-usual.

Speck, D (2020) ‘Exclusive: Covid-19 ‘widens achievement gap to a gulf’’ ((29 May) Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-widens-achievement-gap-gulf