Four pillars of good practice that will help WP teams recover from Covid-19

Of necessity WP teams are having to be creative right now. But in the reflective spaces opened up by Covid-19, there's an opportunity to plan for the longer term, argues Ellie Mulcahy.

Writing on Wonkhe in May, Anne Marie Canning argued that universities’ widening participation departments must take a “punk DIY” approach to designing and delivering activities this summer.

I agree. Widening participation work must continue in the face of this crisis and given the timeframe and the pressures of the crisis, widening participation departments will need to act fast and be creative. However, they must strike a balance between rapid action and careful reflection; we also need to ask how we can ensure responses to the crisis benefit widening participation in the longer term.

Across the education and youth sector, finding new ways of operating in a Covid-affected world is requiring a balance between acting fast to stop vulnerable young people from slipping through the net, and ensuring that quality is maintained.

Our recently published research with The Centre for Social Mobility at The University of Exeter, funded by the Office for Students, shows that widening participation departments are acting quickly to respond to the crisis. New modes of delivery are springing up and the majority of widening participation practitioners are planning to deliver activities in new ways.

Initially this has meant moving things online: six in ten are offering resources similar to teaching online and seven in ten are planning to offer online open days. However, we know that maintaining high quality practice will require more than just switching delivery modes and it appears that practitioners’ innovative responses are already going beyond this.

Here are four key tenets that underpin good practice at all times but which will be more crucial than ever in the coming months and years.

Whole team planning

Our research finds that widening participation practitioners are already recognising that the time is ripe to rethink their work and co-ordinate better across their teams. As delivery staff pressed pause on their day-to-day work with young people they had a chance to step back, rethink and work closely on programme design. Strategy and evaluation teams in turn have a chance to feed their knowledge into planning a new approach and to share this expertise with the whole team.

As one member of an evaluation team explained, changes have “led to exciting opportunities to reimagine what our online outreach could look like in order to achieve the intended goals.”

Theory of change

The constraints that came with Covid-19 could have led practitioners to do whatever they can in the circumstances, without carefully considering intended outcomes. However, it is just as crucial as ever that practice should be shaped around strong outcome frameworks.

One evaluation manager told us that their role had been to scrutinise new plans based on the programme’s theory of change. This mitigates a risk of losing sight of intended goals due to the pressure of difficult new circumstances.

One survey respondent, a widening participation practitioner, said: “The role of my evaluation team has been around questioning and unpicking what staff are trying to do (theory of change etc). The coronavirus situation offers fantastic opportunities to explore new ways of delivery. Therefore, as ever, evaluation is highly embedded in new online programmes.”

Some of the barriers to HE progression that widening participation aims to address remain unchanged. But new barriers are also arising, Therefore, considering the programme’s theory of change in light of the situation and basing planning on the outcomes and assumptions identified will help ensure that a creative approach has the best chance of having a positive impact on young people.

Flexible, reflective evaluation

Periods of innovation can prove fertile ground for learning, but only if the right lessons are learned. For years, the sector has recognised the importance of high quality evaluation to guide the evolution of widening participation practice. In the new paradigm it will also play a critical role in ensuring that novel forms of delivery evolve into high quality practice. Thus, as well as responsively shifting programme delivery this summer, widening participation teams must implement evaluation techniques and approaches that provide rigorous but practical lessons insight for improvement.

In our own evaluation work at CfEY we try to build in flexibility, structuring research around an iterative process of reflection that feeds into universities’ programme design. This approach is needed more than ever to ensure that new practices go from reactive to responsive and that innovation paves the way for high quality programmes and practice.

Anna Mountford-Zimdars at the University of Exeter says, “Some outreach staff are telling us that the cancellation or change to so many events means they are finding more time for evaluation and planning and are designing innovative new ways of reaching widening participation students that may enhance access to information and opportunities in the long run.”

Strong partnerships and sharing learning

WP departments across the country are on the same journey and will be facing the same challenges. Partnership and sharing practice will support the whole sector to quickly find the best approaches to supporting young people during the crisis. Widening participation teams will need to be open and honest with each other in sharing both successes and failures so that mistakes are not repeated and so that when a new approach goes well, this can be quickly rolled out more widely.

It is highly unlikely that things will snap back to how they were before. What widening participation teams do now will therefore lay the foundations for the sector’s future. Whole team working, robust evaluation and strong partnerships across the sector will ensure that the creative, quickly executed, punk DIY, approach this summer, results in better widening participation practice in years to come.

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