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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.

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