Jackie Powell, Higher Education Progression Partnership, Sheffield Hallam University and University of Sheffield
Following the allocation of HEFCE funding to 29 regional consortia, the National Collaborative Outreach programme (NCOP) is due to start on 1 January 2017. The bidding was the easy part; funds are substantial but the challenges of implementation and delivery even more so.
The remit of the programme is to work with the most disadvantaged young people (Polar3, Quintile 1) within year groups Y9 – Y13, and from that group double the number entering higher education by 2020, including BAME and gender gaps in applications to higher education (HE).
Each region is different. Some consortia have coastal and rural communities, others difficult urban areas. South Yorkshire was inevitably included. It has one of the lowest rates of HE participation overall, low rates of graduate employment except in the public sector, and a large number of ‘gaps’ schools, where participation is lower than expected relative to performance at GCSE. The consortium is one of the largest, with 45 allocated wards, where approximately 28,000 students and most schools meet the criteria. Target wards feature inner city, problem estates and isolated ex-mining communities.
Extending the work already being carried out by HE would be the obvious answer, but the task isn’t so easy. The logistics of accommodating new delivery teams are problematic. Activity offered must be based on ‘what works’, using evidence and research findings, and where possible new and innovative work. There is already some evidence of impact – university work in disadvantaged areas has certainly changed aspiration and to some extent participation – but huge gaps still remain, so something different is needed. A consortium approach may be the answer, including HE, further education (FE), employers and charities in the mix.
An anticipated difficulty is that all providers of information or activity must act impartially and as part of a planned programme in the interests of progression to higher level outcomes, as opposed to a series of unrelated interventions from different providers with different agendas. If providers see NCOP as a recruitment opportunity for themselves it is likely to be less successful. In fact, all providers could benefit from a consortium approach.
College based HE destinations must play a large part. Many courses are more accessible to the target cohorts, both in terms of entrance requirements and geography – in some of the areas involved there is a reluctance to travel even 10 miles to access provision, and transport links are inadequate. Colleges could gain numbers, but in return must allow access to other providers for their own learners.
The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) supported the bid and employers wish to contribute. This will play well with parents in some areas, since concern about graduate employment is a major reason for reluctance to consider HE. The challenge will be to ensure that employers focus on the promotion of higher education and not recruitment directly into the workforce. Higher and graduate apprenticeships do count as progression for NCOP, but unfortunately they are thin on the ground in this region, and often places go to existing employees rather than school leavers.
Within South Yorkshire there are multiple, longstanding challenges, which cannot easily be overcome. School achievement factors into the possible outcomes, and there is little the partnership can do about that. The short window for delivery and the year groups involved mean that many young people will have already chosen options and future plans. A serious challenge comes from the fact that schools do not have to participate; the reluctance of some schools to engage with HE (ironically often the ones with progression challenges) is already seen, and their priorities are driven by league tables and Ofsted. Hopefully the new approach of NCOP will be welcomed by schools and will rationalise the multiple approaches they receive.
The scale and challenge of this programme is obvious. That said, the funding allows for an ambitious scale of activity and involvement, and there is a track record of improvement via outreach in this region already. As an existing partnership, we have experience of working across sectors, and remain optimistic that the consortium will deliver what is needed.