How to raise attainment in schools

As expectations grow on universities to help raise attainment, Anna Anthony explores what we know and don't know about what works

Anna Anthony is Co-Director at the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) Service

Attainment raising outreach is the new priority as the Office for Students (OfS) asks providers, both through Access and Participation Plan (APP) delivery and Uni Connect delivery, to focus on raising attainment in schools.

Between 2017 and 2019 I conducted my own Doctoral research into the Potential for university-led outreach to raise attainment in schools. As part of this, I developed an Attainment Raising Activity Typology through content analysis of providers’ APPs and interviewed 30 access managers on the outreach they were delivering to raise attainment.

So with the renewed emphasis on attainment raising and as Senior Analyst at HEAT it seems now is the right time to revisit my findings and address some of the concerns raised by providers kind enough to participate in my research.

What can raise attainment?

This is the question everyone is asking, now and back when I started my PhD in 2017. In truth, we don’t yet know the best ways for universities’ widening access departments to help raise attainment in schools. Analysis based on HEAT’s longitudinal dataset found that taking part in more intensive outreach is associated with higher Key Stage 4 attainment but, showing correlation rather than causation, it cannot tell us which outreach activities cause students to do better at school.

Experts from the recent OfS Insight Event suggested that providers should review the current evidence of attainment raising outreach, conduct needs analyses in their local areas, speak to schools and think about what their type of institution can offer. All sensible advice, suggesting there is no one-size-fits-all approach and different types of activities are needed depending on context.

TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) will soon be publishing a Typology of possible AR outreach activities which is based on the typology I developed through my research. This includes:

  • activities that may raise attainment indirectly, through raising social or cultural capital, often broadly referred to as “aspiration raising activities”;
  • activities that focus on improving study skills and pupils’ approaches to learning;
  • activities that may be considered to have more of a direct impact on attainment such as academic tutoring.

TASO present findings from the literature (also available in my own literature review) about which activities show the most evidence of promise. As is often the message, there is a paucity of evidence around “what works” in terms of AR outreach activities, and we are now looking to the sector to generate that evidence.

Whatever we do needs to be measured

Alongside the new(ish) priority to raise attainment remains the priority for Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation. Evaluation is critical but it emerged from the interviews I held with access managers that strict requirements may be restricting the types of activities that providers are choosing to deliver. The refrain “what gets measured gets done” certainly rings true in this context.

When asked to talk about the outreach activities they planned to deliver to raise attainment, the majority of access managers had decided on academic tutoring. Driving this decision was the perception that they would need to show a direct impact on the exam grades of the pupils they were working with. Without guidance to the contrary, the managers I spoke to had made the assumption that providers were going to need to show a tangible impact on exam grades. This reductive reasoning is understandable in the context of outreach work, where providers are under pressure to show causal impact quickly.

For some the worry was wider – that universities would be held accountable for schools’ performances, a thought that fuelled considerable scepticism towards the policy and prompted some to question whether outreach teams could realistically contribute to this agenda at all.

Intermediate outcomes are just as valid

Now is a good time for OfS to reflect on these views and be clear about whether the assumptions being made in relation to the need to measure the direct impact of outreach on exam grades are right or wrong. If providers are, as it was previously assumed by my interviewees, required to show a direct impact on grades, this will likely push providers towards academic tutoring types of activity. If, however, OfS chooses to take a more nuanced approach, and accept impact based on intermediate outcomes such as academic self-efficacy and meta-cognition that research tells us contributes to the longer-term outcome of attainment, we will see a very different offer.

Given we do not yet know the best ways for universities to support attainment raising in schools, it would be wise to encourage innovation and creativity in this space, rather than restrict it through strict targets and requirements to show impact on exam grades. It would be folly to pre-empt OfS guidance, but early signs are positive. During a Q&A session, John Blake said at the recent TASO Annual Conference (28/04/2022) that OfS will be prepared to look at intermediate outcomes. However, the extent to which this translates into targets set in APPs is yet to be seen.

Alongside this we await with excitement the results of the Validated Scales Project commissioned by TASO which promises scales to measure the intermediate outcomes that are so important to raising attainment.

Clear guidance from OfS is key. In another of my PhD research questions, I was able to use data from HEAT to show that changes in trends in delivery of outreach over time could often be linked to advice from governmental policy briefings and reports. This shows the important role of guidance in keeping policy implementation on track with its original aims.

Academic Tutoring outreach up close

Then there is Academic Tutoring. It has been embraced by government as a way to raise attainment and it was the top activity chosen by my interviewees for what they have planned in terms of AR outreach. However, before we are too quick to position tutoring as a good place for providers to start when thinking about activities to raise attainment, I would like to put forward some words of caution.

There is evidence to suggest that intensive one to one or small group tuition can be effective in raising attainment, but evidence also tells us that tutoring must be properly implemented if we want to see positive outcomes. Whether providers’ outreach teams are equipped to do this requires more discussion.

Nearly all tutoring discussed in the interviews I conducted was to be delivered by undergraduate student ambassadors. There was variety in the style of delivery, with differing group sizes, numbers of sessions and contact hours, but in nearly all cases the tutors had no formal teacher training. Many managers expressed uncertainty about whether student ambassadors had the expertise to teach, and suggested their role was to help raise attainment in other ways, often by acting as an inspirational role model.

For this reason, when talking about the theory of change model through which they expected their proposed academic tutoring activities to work, most said tutors were not there to raise attainment directly, but through the building of a strong relationship between tutor and tutee and for this to lead to gains in self-confidence or self-efficacy and then for this in turn to lead to gains in attainment. So despite the initial appeal of academic tutoring for its more direct effect on attainment, discussions revealed that the mechanisms are actually more complex. Rather than involving the imparting of curriculum knowledge, they relate to those all-important intermediate outcomes.

Can tutoring work?

So the next logical question is – can this type of tutoring, when delivered by student ambassadors, still lead to attainment gains for tutees? At this point, the managers I spoke to were fairly unsure about whether they would be able to demonstrate hard increases in attainment OfS were asking for at that time.

However, there has been research on similar types of tutoring that we can learn from. This kind of academic tutoring can be likened to what is known as “cross-age peer tutoring”. Peer tutoring is characterised by having a focus on curriculum content, and in this respect it is different from ‘mentoring’, which tends to provide support that is more pastoral in focus. This model of delivery is most similar to that described by access managers in my study, where undergraduate students act as tutors to students of secondary school age..

Research has shown that it is critical that a meaningful relationship is built between tutor and tutee for cross-age peer tutoring to work well. It is thought that this may occur more naturally with cross-age peer tutoring where tutors and tutees speak a more similar language than do teachers and students. These same ideas are used to justify the involvement of student ambassadors in outreach, with ambassadors acting as role models and trusted sources of information. Where the managers I interviewed had concerns that student ambassadors may lack the expertise to teach and deliver activities designed to raise attainment, this suggests that tutors don’t need to be trained teaching professionals in order to see effective outcomes.

However, research also tells us that this trusted relationship does not always occur. Research has found that when ambassadors take on a pseudo-teacher role they are less likely to develop a meaningful relationship with the student than if they see themselves as equal to the students they are tutoring. This was because ambassadors were unable to replicate the professionalism of teachers and as a result the school students reported that they didn’t respect them as useful sources of information and support.

At the same time as building these meaningful relationships, evidence shows that effective tutors need to be equipped with the relevant information and communicate it effectively and in a timely way. This is quite a task and it seems we may be asking a lot of our ambassadors: to tutor to help raise attainment but not act as teachers; to have relevant and accurate information, and also to see themselves as equals to the students they are assisting. Clearly ambassadors would need specific training to help them get it right and further research is needed in this area.

As the building of meaningful relationships is a critical step in the effective implementation of academic tutoring delivered by student ambassadors, any evaluation should measure whether that occurs as an intermediate step, as well as examining other intermediate outcomes, before grade increases. Positioning exam grades as the only worthwhile outcome may divert attention away from meaningful evaluation as well as restrict the range of activities that providers offer.

3 responses to “How to raise attainment in schools

  1. What we need is for young people to want to work harder and take more personal responsibility for their own outcomes. We can do this via outreach but equally we should be getting young people (and not just the most gifted) onto campus to show them a different environment and let them have a go at lab classes. Show them the work of graduates but also let them speak to the kids as many of them might have been in their shoes and not even thought about higher education as a career option.

  2. Having been involved in outreach for 25+ years and secondary school governorship for part of that I have to say most children not from G&T programmes get very little from Universities involvement in their school education. No doubt schools receiving a more tailored outreach and support effort can benefit their pupils, but it’s not easy to do so unless the school and university are part of the same community with a good understanding of the local social situations.

    As a recruitment tool outreach has it’s benefits, and usually involves schools with high attainment records, those currently visiting our campus come from formerly grammar and ‘private’ schools. Inviting those from the local secondary, a school with one of the highest rates of recidivist criminality in the UK, is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the criminally inclined learning where all the high-value ‘targets’ are on campus and all the internal building layouts to facilitate future crimes.

    Also we should not forget the ‘child protection’ issues either, too many times teachers with pupils attending simply leave their charges with University staff whilst they go and do other things, those University staff often have not been DBS checked, some with even minor criminal records have no wish to undergo DBS checks. And as we say a DBS check only proves someone hasn’t been caught, yet, it doesn’t mean they are safe, and our students under and post grad being closer in age to visiting children are more ‘at risk’ of ‘child protection’ problems/false accusations than many will admit.

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