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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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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How literature puts a spark into university access debates

by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Colin McCaig

“The greatest competition to the establishment of social science was literature” observed one of our undergraduate lecturers many moons ago. If you wanted to know about the conditions of Victorian England, would you like to read a report detailing the diet and housing conditions of members of different social groups or read Charles Dickens?

As scholars in the field of widening participation and social mobility we were implicitly challenged to reconsider this question: is it literature or is it social science that touches us, and motivates us to change policy or even our own actions? Unsurprisingly, we argue that there is room for both genres, but literature wins hands down in terms of instilling passion and allowing us to consider issues with our hearts rather than heads.

We are talking here about Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, that ‘went viral’ in the United States and beat Michelle Obama’s autobiography to become the Goodreads Choice Award 2018. Among the over 50,000 reviews of the book is one from Bill Gates and the book was on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Reviews and talk-shows featuring the memoir have focused primarily on the family story and the often disturbing relationships between family members, which led to the ultimate schism between Tara and her parents. But reading the book as social scientists, we did not only see  a memoir of bizarre familial dysfunctionality, we found ourselves reading this book as the ‘ultimate widening participation’ story.

Born in Idaho to a Mormon survivalist father opposed to public education (indeed, any government activity), Tara never attended school or saw a doctor. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. While one of her siblings taught her to read, another frequently attacked her violently with the parents looking away. Her story of transformation through education began when Tara taught herself the numeracy skills required to pass the standardised entrance test for universities, the ACT. This set her on an education journey to Brigham Young University (a Mormon university in Utah), Harvard and to her PhD at Cambridge, England, on The family, morality and social science in Anglo-American cooperative thought, 1813-1890.

Reading Tara’s story with the eyes of social mobility scholars, it offered much reassurance for academics committed to the access agenda. Tara is admitted to higher education despite her lack of traditional (school) credentials. She receives a partial fee waiver by the institution. When, eventually, she applies for federal financial aid help, she receives help from the state. Her tutor encourages her to apply for a study abroad opportunity at Cambridge. Not only this, but when she is not selected, he uses his knowledge of her and her context to advocate for her and succeeds in getting her a place. Other tutors spot her talent and encourage and advocate for her to obtain a scholarship – the Gates scholarship – to undertake her PhD work at Cambridge. There are also wider support networks: when she first enters higher education, a Mormon Bishop supports her though conversation and, at Cambridge, she is able to enrol at the University Counselling Service.

We read this as a partial redemption story for those working on access and increasing opportunities. We are often frustrated by slow progress and continued inequities in access, progression and success in higher education, or we see HE institutions struggling to change as fast as society to be fully inclusive. There is always a feeling that more could be done: our outreach programmes sometimes don’t reach the most disadvantaged. There can be inadequate regional coverage of opportunities. Higher education may not be the right choice for everyone. Our institutional timetables don’t always allow for students to have part-time jobs they need to fund themselves or their caring responsibilities. We have to make the same arguments year after year to keep widening participation as a core consideration of the daily activities of our institutions. Universities are all fishing for the same ‘diamonds in the rough’ which, in the UK, is often solely defined as a disadvantaged student, however measured, with unusually high grades given their opportunities and context. We need to work on widening access and funding for postgraduate study. And all this is not for lack of social science evidence of what the issues are, or ideas of what needs to be done to achieve greater evidence – it’s just that it is hard to do it all the time. So, it is easy sometimes to be frustrated.

And then along comes Tara and tells the story of how it is all worth it in the end. How she encounters academics who are fundamentally decent human beings, who can contextualise her knowledge and lack thereof, who care and make a difference. And she tells of a state government that does actually offer funding (if modest), of institutions that offer scholarships (if modest), of scholarship panels that are thoughtful – perhaps even wise – and of professional service parts of the university successfully working to support students.

But there are also questions the book leaves us with, that emphasise the need for further research: Tara was able to compensate for an almost complete lack of education by passing a college entrance test. This would not be possible in the English system – save for, perhaps the Open University, institutions respond to market drivers and want young people from a traditional trajectory of having been to school, taken exams (especially A-levels in favoured subjects) and demonstrated prior success. Tara would have been denied the  opportunities of higher education in the UK and we would have lost out on a PhD – and, more importantly, her book.

We can also ask how people who share some of Tara’s ‘educational disadvantages’, such as rurality and home-schooling, could be reached and inspired to change their journeys. It is clear that Tara is an incredibly resilient and reflective woman; it would be unreasonable to infer that everyone in her circumstances could have taken the path she did. How can we support more people who share some of Tara’s characteristics to enter higher education?

We also wonder about the role of academic discretion, one of the greatest aspects of being a professional in higher education. The academics in the book put their discretion to good use to support Tara, creating a powerful story of individual academic success and opportunities. But how can we create more structures that enable more of such individual success stories? For example, we don’t know – from the book – whether there are established links between universities with a specific religious focus – such as Brigham Young – and favoured entry to her subsequent institutions, Harvard and Cambridge. Was her discretion-enabled journey really about her specific talents, or was she just the Mormon applicant with the most harrowing backstory? Access work is all about equalising opportunities for progression into HE, but the implication is that Tara was helped on her way because of her initial church affiliation and subsequent links between institutions with Christian foundations. In essence, the access question is: would an uneducated rural girl from the mountains of Idaho have the same opportunity if she didn’t have familial links with the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Discretion, when it is essentially discrimination, can be more structural than personal.

Social science can give us good questions, good evidence, answers and facts. Literature can put the soul and heart into the stories and inspire more thinking, research and action. Dr Westover may not have intended to create new lines of research in social mobility, but she has nonetheless succeeded in doing so perhaps to a greater level than recent scholarly books in the field.  So we end with a big thank you to Dr Tara Westover for sharing her fantastic story!

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. SRHE member Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.

Which books beyond social science have influenced your academic practice? Write us a blog about it, or if you prefer discuss an idea first with editor rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk.