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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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