The relevance of widening participation to schools

By Dr Neil Raven, FACE Executive Member and Educational Consultant

Discussions about the rationale for widening participation (WP) tend to focus on the benefits of higher education (HE) to individual learners (Milburn, 2012; Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2013), as well as for universities (OFFA and HEFCE, 2014, 3). Consequently, the school perspective is often overlooked. Yet, arguably, such an understanding is vital for effective collaborative outreach. As part of a Lincolnshire National Network for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) funded project, a series of workshops with teaching professionals were held in which one of the themes addressed was the relevance of the WP agenda to schools. Here, consideration was given to both the costs of involvement and the benefits (Raven, 2015, 2016, 10-12).
 
Regarding the former, workshop participants discussed the ‘time out of the curriculum for students’ involved in outreach activities. In instances where teachers accompanied students on university visits, costs would also be incurred in ‘staff time’ and the provision of ‘supply’ replacements. Reference was also made to the administration burden for schools in preparing ‘risk assessments’ and liaising with parents. In addition, it was observed that the costs of participating in campus-based events tended to ‘fall unevenly and unfairly on the schools and colleges located further away from the universities being visited’. There were also various indirect costs to contend with, including ‘the potentially detrimental impact on those [learners] who are left out’, and the ‘possible risk of disengagement for those who feel [HE progression] is unachievable’ (Raven, 2016, 10).
 
Despite these costs, outreach interventions had the potential to raise young peoples’ aspirations and inspire them about future options. In addition, they were considered capable of broadening mental ‘horizons’ and providing learners with a ‘clearer idea of [the] grades [they would] need’ to progress. Outreach interventions could also help to nurture ‘more ambitious students [who] want to do better at school’ (Raven, 2016, 11).
 
Whilst such arguments may be familiar to a number of colleagues, an additional set of benefits was also identified. These included the requirement to address Ofsted’s (2015, 12) guidance on personal development, where schools are assessed on ‘the extent to which’ they prepare pupils ‘for the next stage in their education, training or employment’. Outreach activities were considered to ‘afford a way of encouraging learners to think about their post-18 options’. In addition, improved student retention was seen to be an outcome of engaging in outreach interventions, especially those that help motivate learners and inspire them to study. Participants also talked about ‘league tables’ and an ‘improved view of a school if more of its learners progress to HE’ (Raven, 2016, 11).
 
For these teaching professionals at least, the benefits of outreach – and of collaboration – were judged to outweigh the costs. There was also a recognised value to this exercise for those organising and running these workshops, since they were able provide a more detailed insight into the school-perspective.  On this last point, I would welcome the views of FACE colleagues on their experiences of the drivers influencing school engagement with the WP agenda. 
 
Contact Neil at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

References

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2013. Things we know and don’t know about the wider benefits of higher education: a review of the recent literature, http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/18685/1/bis-13-1244-things-we-know-and-dont-know-about-the-wider-benefits-of-higher-education.pdf

Milburn, A. 2012. University challenge: how higher education can advance social mobility: a progress report by the independent reviewer on social mobility and child poverty, http://socialwelfare.bl.uk/subject-areas/services-activity/education-skills/cabinetoffice/university12.aspx

Office for Fair Access and Higher Education Funding Council for England. 2014. National Strategy for Access and Student Success. Bristol: Bristol: Office for Fair Access and Higher Education Funding Council for England, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/299689/bis-14-516-national-strategy-for-access-and-student-success.pdf

Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). 2015. The common inspection framework: education, skills and early years. OFSTED: Manchester. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/common-inspection-framework-education-skills-and-early-years-from-september-2015

Raven, N. 2015. ‘Is there a case for cost effectiveness in widening access? A thought piece.’ Forum for Access and Continuing Education, e-Bulletin, 91 (June).

Raven. N. 2016. CPD workshops in widening participation for the school and college contacts in the Lincolnshire NNCO. Lincolnshire Outreach Network.

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