Fair access to fair access: teachers speak candidly

A lot of things have been written recently on widening participation, covering everything from the importance of evidence to the impact of Brexit and the limitations of POLAR.

For those of us who work in university access, this analysis is helpful in considering what we should be doing, how we can improve and where we should focus our efforts. But what about teachers – the ones who spend thirteen years preparing young people for higher education and careers – what do they think? If partnership working is the key to effective WP (spoiler: it is), then the answer should matter to all of us.

My colleague Paul Rünz and I teamed up with the good people at Teacher Tapp to ask what they saw as the main barriers to accessing external opportunities for their pupils to learn about university. Teacher Tapp surveyed more than 3,000 teachers and weighted the results to make them representative of the teacher population in England. Some of the results are not surprising, some of them are quite depressing; overall, they point to five key challenges that represent barriers to effective school-university partnership working.

Five key challenges

First, in a time of tightening school budgets, you might think that the biggest barrier to schools would be financial – but it isn’t. Teachers are twice as likely to cite awareness of opportunities (32%), time to engage with them (29%) and logistical difficulties (29%) as the main barriers to engaging with external university access programmes as they are to cite cost (15%). While classroom teachers are most likely to cite lack of knowledge, a quarter of head teachers say they “don’t know what opportunities are out there”.

Second, although cost and availability of opportunities are not prohibitive across the board, there is a hard core of high-need schools who are not currently being served. Teachers in schools with the highest proportion of pupils on free school meals were most likely to say that “opportunities are too expensive for us”, “there are few/no opportunities for schools like ours” and “opportunities are not designed to meet my school’s needs”.

This is interesting, because these schools are often most likely to be targeted for free or subsidised access schemes. We think this finding highlights some complex issues around how interventions are designed, and the capacity of schools in the toughest circumstances to engage with them.

Third, is a reminder that schools (and colleges) are far from homogenous. The perceived barriers to engagement vary by the type of school, with primary school teachers most likely to say they didn’t know what opportunities were available (48%) and secondary school teachers more likely to say their school lacked staff time (36%) or that opportunities were logistically difficult to engage with (35%).

Fourth, despite recent press reports of ‘social engineering’, private schools find it significantly easier to involve their pupils in opportunities to learn about university. Over half of teachers in the independent sector said they “hadn’t encountered any barriers to working with universities and related organisations”.

This is a stark reminder that the drivers of inequality are dynamic, not static. For every member of university or third-sector staff running outreach opportunities for state schools, there is probably at least one member of staff in private schools with the time and resources to research, design and arrange similar opportunities for their pupils. We have to run to stand still.

Fifth, we also asked teachers about their confidence in talking to pupils about whether university is right for them. The good news is that levels of confidence are generally high. However, confidence is higher for teachers who attended a more-selective university themselves, those in independent schools and those in secondary schools. Also, confidence aside, teachers still value external support when it comes to giving pupils specialised information and experiences to prepare them for university.

Cause for reflection and alignment

How can we address these challenges? Our report puts forward five lessons for effective partnership working, drawn from qualitative research with teachers and practitioners, and The Brilliant Club’s experience in facilitating partnerships for university access with over 800 schools.

Specifically, we call for greater alignment and coordination of activity to connect universities and schools, with a concerted national effort to build school capacity and a focus on empowering the schools that are currently underserved. Some of this alignment can come from practitioners in the university access space, but there’s an important role for policy makers too – resolving the conflicts in funding streams, performance metrics and rhetoric that can work against effective cross-sector collaboration.

Most of all, we call for a recognition that details matter. The design of interventions, the way they are marketed and targeted, logistical burdens and hidden costs – like travel and staff cover – really matter to teachers and schools. Nothing is insignificant. And effective partnership working depends our ability to see things from a school’s point of view.

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