The Importance of FACE to a lifelong practitioner

I joined FACE around 2010 and the FACE executive a couple of years later. The ability to discuss and exchange information from with colleagues from around the UK has been invaluable, and of course the conferences held in all corners of the UK are legendary! During my career FACE has been a sounding board, a support and a source of ideas, as well as one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable organisations in higher education. Until retiring I worked in education for over forty years, with most roles relating to fair access and widening participation. This blog is a personal view of some of the issues that have arisen over that time and will be my final one for FACE.

 

Working in widening participation is a job of two halves, pushing students from schools and colleges to apply and pulling them in to higher education organisations. I have been fortunate to have undertaken both these roles. What follows is a brief account of a personal journey, with what I am sure are familiar challenges to FACE members along the way.

 

In the 1980s, less than 20% of all young people went to university, and terms like ‘widening participation’ were not in common use, although the concept was being seriously considered.

 

As a new sixth form tutor in a mixed intake secondary school, it soon became apparent that those from better off homes often had university firmly in their sights, whilst for others it was not even on the radar. As a ‘first in family’ myself I understood this and once in a position to influence school policy it became a mission. I contacted admissions teams to arrange activities, visits and speakers and with colleagues introduced a system to ensure consistency of quality and objectivity in UCAS references, previously written by individuals without checks. Through this collaborative effort progression increased for a much wider range of students. I was hooked!

 

By 1990 the number of young people entering university was still only 25% and the numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds were very small.

 

At this point, working in a large multi-site further education college, I saw that college students were less likely to be targeted by higher education than schools. The number of students taking A levels in college far exceeded the total number from all schools in the city. Like for like, college students performed as well as or better than schools, yet for statistical reasons this was not reflected in league tables, so schools were given preferential treatment. This type of misunderstanding between pre- and post-18 institutions on policy can still arise but fortunately matters have improved.

 

Moving to a college in another town in 2001, things had begun to change. Aimhigher very much helped schools and colleges by instigating and funding opportunities to raise awareness, attainment and ambition for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Many students benefited, although schools and those taking A level programmes still tended to participate more.

The biggest challenge in college was the very low number of vocational students who left to go into higher education. This one was a battle. Encouraging students to progress would reduce the numbers staying on for HND in college and every effort to do so was undermined by senior management. Students were unaware of the opportunities which were open to them, and universities were not all recognising the talent they were missing.

 

I became a member of the UCAS Admissions Forum, having regular and useful discussions with a range of admissions staff. A widely expressed concern was that BTEC was not sufficiently academic. Yet a survey of college revealed that almost 20% of our students choosing a BTEC route had GCSEs comprising all A or B grades; they could have studied A levels. One very talented athlete heading for a BTEC Distinction wanted to study Sport Science at a highly regarded university but was rejected. I contacted admissions, to be told she had insufficient science. A colleague who taught science on both BTEC and A levels matched the subject content line by line and concluded that in fact she had science equivalent to 2.3 A levels, so we forwarded the data and she was accepted. More importantly and to its credit, the course changed its entrance requirements to include BTEC at a time when few did. This sort of advocacy on behalf of individuals was unsustainable, and thankfully now rarely necessary but illustrates the struggle.

 

Moving into the university sector I had the opportunity to speak directly to admissions teams. An astute head of admissions for nursing told me why BTEC students were welcome – not only did they have the required content, but they had already shown commitment to the career, including placements, whereas sometimes A level students find out too late that the work is not for them. The attrition rate of courses merits close attention. The debate usually focuses on the ability of vocational students to cope, or their learning style. Rarely does it consider teaching style, yet I have often come across lecturers who start with the assumption that all their students have studied the A level syllabus. Again, pre- and post-18 organisations could resolve some of these issues together.

 

It is so important to understand courses, applicants and motivation, but is difficult for universities to do in a constantly changing landscape. The role of education policy in this field is key but would require a blog of its own. Suffice to say that repeated changes do nothing to help the improvement in participation. In my experience of meeting government advisers over the years, most are not well-informed about the detail of the curriculum for any age group, let alone the complex interaction between schools, colleges and universities needed to make the frequent changes work. Current issues with T Levels are very similar to those experienced with BTEC, the short-lived Diplomas, GCSE options, etc. Higher education is good at sorting these out – the rise of Apprenticeship progression is a case in point – but it takes time and commitment, and of course funding to do properly.

 

In 2011 and following the demise of Aimhigher, the two universities in Sheffield jointly funded an   objective collaborative scheme to encourage disadvantaged young people and adults into higher education, separate from their outreach, to include partnerships with schools, colleges, charities and the LEP. I was fortunate enough to be appointed to plan and set up the partnership, which is still operating today alongside the more recent government funded scheme for which it was in part the model. The challenges were huge at first, but the rewards were too. From this experience I would claim that collaboration really does work and is the way forward.

 

So where are we now? Stating a figure for the percentage of young people progressing to university right now would be misleading; these are unusual times. Without doubt the systems are much fairer than they were forty years ago, and higher education has welcomed and improved practices to facilitate the progress of under-represented students.

The fact that progression for a much broader range of students has improved markedly is due to the efforts of all those involved at both ends of the admissions process over many years, and I am proud to have played a part in it. However, there is still much to do. Policies tend to run in circles and issues recur over the years, and those new to the relevant roles bring fresh perspectives which are important. The work will never be finished, but my part in it will. I have genuinely enjoyed my career and hope to continue to be involved with education in small ways and through volunteering. I won’t miss everything, but I do miss colleagues and will definitely miss FACE conferences!

 

Jackie Powell

January 2022

 

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