Praxis makes perfect: Developing research-informed widening participation practice

An image of a speech bubble constructed from colour paper.

In this article, Chris Bayes and Martin Walker at Lancaster University share a case study of applying research-informed practice in an access to social work programme.

Background to the project: Chris’ experience

In the 2016/17 academic year, I took part in a writing programme for widening participation (WP) practitioners, which linked participants with academic mentors to complete a piece of published academic research.  The project was co-ordinated by Professor Jacqueline Stevenson and supported by The Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

The rationale for the project was to encourage collaboration between two communities (research and practice) both active within WP.  Speaking at the launch of the programme, the then Director of OFFA, Professor Les Ebdon commented, “It is important that academic staff and those on the front line of widening participation work closely together to understand what works”.  The project was a fantastic experience and my paper ‘Blurred Boundaries: Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment and WP’ was published in the Forum for Access and Continuing Education’s (FACE) ‘Transformative Higher Education’ collection in 2019.

A key issue the programme highlighted was the disconnect between practice and research colleagues. One of the desired outcomes of creating a new community of ‘pracademics’ did not fully come to fruition.  Not all of the participants in the programme had their work published; this was not due to a lack of effort, more an indication that producing a paper on top of a full-time role is a huge undertaking.  It also highlighted how these two communities co-exist alongside one another, but have different rules, timeframes and speak a different language.  Professor Stevenson recognised this at the outset of the programme, when she stated “Widening participation practitioners are at the forefront of successful […] work. However, these initiatives are not always known about within the academic community, in part because their modes of dissemination are quite different.”

My paper focused on another long-standing disconnect between the two functions of Student Recruitment and Widening Participation.  Having worked in the sector since 2007 across both areas, I recognised “successive policy changes” have meant, “The two services are now operating more closely than ever before.” The development of a marketised Higher Education (HE) sector in England & Wales has led to “an underlying tension between attempts to collaboratively widen participation in HE amongst under-represented groups and the desires of individual institutions to grow their own student numbers through taking market share from their competitors.”

Applying theory in practice

Starting in my current role at Lancaster University (LU) in 2018, I was tasked with developing a Faculty-led Student Lifecycle approach towards WP.  The team conducted an initial mapping exercise to understand what WP activities and projects Faculties were currently offering.  It was clear there were differing levels of activity and understanding of WP across the institution.  However, in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS), there was a great appreciation and understanding of the WP agenda amongst academics and the Associate Dean (AD).  The AD also clearly understood the linkage between Student Recruitment and WP, and made some valuable recommendations (informed by data and institutional understanding) of Departments with whom we could work with to pilot activities during the 2018/19 academic year to formulate our Lifecycle model as illustrated below:

Developing the Access to Social Work programme

One of the Departments the AD felt we could support was Social Work, so we held an exploratory meeting with the Head of Department (HoD).  From this chat, it was clear that Social Work was an institutional outlier.  Unlike previous institutions at which I had worked where Social Work had alongside Health-related disciplines, at LU, it is based in FASS in a Department with Sociology. 

The conversation highlighted how the HoD clearly understood that Social Work had a unique challenge in terms of recruitment.  Whereas LU’s over-arching recruitment focus is to grow numbers from high-performing schools, perhaps reflective of the University’s standing as an elite university that performs extremely well in UK league tables, Social Work as a discipline often appeals to young people who enter HE via the BTEC pathway.  Alongside this, within the North West of England, many other local universities offer Social Work and as traditionally recruiting institutions, these universities (more often than not, post 92 institutions) have long-standing relations with the large Further Education Colleges (FECs) from which many BTEC students’ progress to HE level study.

After holding this meeting, Martin Walker and I (Outreach Officer – FASS & Lancaster University Management School) began planning the ‘Access to Social Work’ programme.  This programme was influenced by previous practice in Student Recruitment at Edge Hill University.  Within this role, one of our core markets was students from non-traditional qualification backgrounds.  Whilst working at Edge Hill, I developed a series of multi-stage intervention programmes to support students within local FECs to access the institution.  These included campus visits and in-house sessions at the college.  The content was tailored to support students from FECs at each stage of the UCAS process.  I felt that this methodology was broadly transferrable to the challenge faced by Social Work at Lancaster; Martin then developed and implemented a project plan based on this discussion.

Delivering the Access to Social Work programme: Martin’s experience

Following discussions with the Social Work department, we decided to target four large local FECs to pilot the programme. Meetings with the Heads of Health of Social Care took place over a period of four months and the programme was co-designed with them in order to best support their students’ needs. The programme, broadly conceived, was a four-stage intervention model beginning in September and concluding the following January:

Stage Event Learning outcomes Location
One Initial UCAS/Applying to university IAG – To introduce participants to Lancaster University and social work course
– To introduce participants to the UCAS process
– Session content to be supported by student experience element from current LU student
In college
Two Social Work Personal statement workshop – To introduce participants to how to construct a successful personal statement
– To support this through analysis of exemplar personal statements received in previous application cycles
– Session content to be supported by student experience element from current LU student
In college
Three Campus visit – To introduce participants to LU campus and lecturers
– To provide participants with a Social Work taster session
– To provide participants with details of placement opportunities and support
– Q&A with tutors and students
On-campus
Four Mock interview IAG – To prepare potential students for their actual interviews In college

Some colleges followed the above model, others opted to have the on-campus visit first as they felt this would benefit students more – providing a ‘wow factor’ and giving a sense of what they could go on to do after their second year of BTEC, and ultimately making them buy into the programme more.

Over the course of five months, we engaged 130 students – 90 of which were BTEC Level 3 students and 30 were mature students on an Access to Health-related course.  Of the participating FECs, perhaps the strongest working relationship developed was with Lancaster & Morecambe College (L&MC), our most local FEC.  Of the 18 students that took part in the programme from L&MC, 5 made an application to study Social Work at Lancaster.

Ninty-eight per cent of learners who participated in the programme rated their experience as good, or better than expected with clear increases in all learners viewing higher education as a realistic and viable route for them. One of the applicants described in their personal statement how the opportunity to meet students currently studying Social Work at Lancaster from a Health and Social Care BTEC background, had a powerful impact on them deciding to enter Higher Education:

After the taster day, I felt extremely excited and enthusiastic about my future in social work and want to come to Lancaster.”

In their written feedback, teaching staff were also extremely positive:

As a tutor, I think that the day provided amazing opportunities for students to both participate in a seminar, and also ask current undergraduates questions that only they can answer. A very worthwhile day – well organised and delivered. As a college, we’d definitely like to participate in further opportunities similar to this programme.”

Other teachers also commented how the Social Work taster session during the on-campus visit was “pitched at the right level” for students and that it offered a great mix of theory and practical knowledge that “engaged students of various skill levels.” There were also indications that participation in the programme led to increased attendance at college amongst learners and that some also applied to other local universities to study Social Work, stating that their participation in this programme was what sparked their initial interest.

In terms of future plans, the programme for the forthcoming academic year will include an additional three FE colleges from the Cumbria and Cheshire area, whilst also continuing working with those colleges that participated in the initial pilot.

The view from the Social Work Department: Lisa’s experience

I joined Lancaster at the end of April 2019 and was pleased to continue the Admissions role I had been doing at my previous institution. Having worked as a mental health social worker for many years and being a first-generation university student myself, I know first-hand that students from non-traditional qualification backgrounds make excellent social workers. Spending time with the students at their colleges and then welcoming them to the campus was the highlight of my Lecturer post over this academic year. We devised a taster session called ‘Secrets and Lies’ which was based on a real-life experience of a mother being subject to the child protection process. The students engaged really well with the session and it gave them a flavour of what being a social worker actually involves. It was great to work with Martin on a programme that aligns so closely with social work values.

This blog was kindly contributed by three members of staff at Lancaster University. Chris Bayes is an Outreach & Student Success Manager, Dr Martin Walker is an Outreach Officer and Dr Lisa Morriss is a Lecturer in Social Work.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko

One Response

  1. Thank you. I think the key here is the interest and understanding of the department and staff involved, ensuring that encounters are ‘pitched at the right level’. My experience has been that sometimes departments, having limited time and resources, involve the wrong people in delivery. New or casual staff and students are often given the responsibility, although experience isn’t the only thing that matters; unwilling staff are unlikely to perform well, as are those with a different agenda. In one case a head of department who wanted to participate was keen to see the that applicants understood how demanding a course was and pitched his talks to both college staff and students accordingly. Although it may be a difficult conversation, it’s important that practitioners are clear with departmental colleagues about what is required. This example shows what can be done with genuine collaboration.

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