Driving attainment to increase university access

Attainment at school is the single biggest predictor of positive outcomes in later life; it determines whether individuals enter higher education and the selectivity of the institution to which they can progress.

We know that higher education has many benefits, including salary and wellbeing in adulthood. Yet we also know that inequality in attainment emerges early and increases over the course of schooling. Children in England from the most disadvantaged fifth of families, even children with high initial attainment at age seven, are overtaken by those from the least disadvantaged fifth of families with only average prior ability by age sixteen. It is in this context of unequal attainment that widening participation and fair access interventions currently operate.

The foundation for access and success

Usually seen exclusively through the prism of schools, attainment has become a key policy issue in debates surrounding progression to university from under-represented groups. The 2016 Schools that work for everyone consultation paper asked universities to do more to support the state school system to improve school-level attainment as a way to widen access.

Most recently the Office for Students’ (OfS) Regulatory Notice on Access and Participation Plan Guidance stated that

a plan may… include: outcomes-focused targets related to sustained engagement with pre-16 students… outcomes-focused targets related to raising attainment in schools and colleges…’

Crucially, while the OfS acknowledges that isolating the effect of a single activity on attainment outcomes is difficult, it nonetheless expects universities to evaluate their attainment-raising activities. Such focus has placed attainment raising activities – and the measurement of their impact – front and centre for institutions creating their new Access and Participation Plans.

At the Brilliant Club we have published the latest in a series of impact case studies looking at how universities and university access organisations can effectively evidence the impact of their outreach interventions on raising attainment in schools. As providers prepare their Access and participation Plans, we think it’s worth a detailed look.

‘Attainment’ doesn’t just mean grades

The most obvious form of attainment is progress in the school curriculum, measured by GCSE and A Level exams (and sometimes BTECs). Such a definition might lead universities to become more involved in the core responsibilities of schools, and at the same time make it hard to separate out the contribution of their interventions from the impact of other in- and out-of-school factors. Although many universities have established effective partnerships with schools to undertake this work, and some have even chosen to establish and run schools themselves, this is not the only way to drive attainment.

For example – research shows that improving skills, such as meta-cognitive regulation and critical thinking, are linked to significant improvements in attainment, especially for pupils from underrepresented backgrounds. By helping pupils to apply these cognitive skills they become better learners, which improves both university readiness and attainment at GCSE and A Levels.

Supra-curricular outreach is one measurable way universities can help raise attainment. The opportunities for pupils to have these experiences at school are necessarily limited by time, resources and the content prioritised by the school curriculum. This is where supra-curricular outreach interventions can raise attainment by providing different types of educational experiences that centre on the development of cognitive skills in new contexts. Universities and charities are well-placed to support schools and pupils to do this. This can add value to school-university partnerships and allow the impact of individual interventions on pupil outcomes to be measured.

As part of The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme, we explicitly build opportunities to develop and practice cognitive skills. We measure this using our intermediate outcomes framework , which assesses six key university readiness skills;

  1. written and verbal communication,
  2. subject knowledge,
  3. university knowledge,
  4. motivation and self-efficacy,
  5. meta-cognition, and
  6. critical thinking.

In doing so, we work to raise attainment supporting and augmenting the work done by schools to deliver the curriculum.

Looking ahead

As the first drafts of Access and Participation Plans are completed over the coming months, discussions about how to improve the attainment of pupils from under-represented groups will be taking place in universities across England. For some, this conversation will focus on finding effective ways to directly improve grades in schools and to robustly demonstrate how they did so.

Alongside this, universities should remember how they are already supporting attainment in schools in specific ways and how it is possible to isolate, measure and report on this impact. Improving attainment in schools can and should be meaningful, measurable and complementary to that of schools’ core purpose, which is to prepare pupils for success in later life.

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