Is attainment raising about moral obligation or regulatory requirement?

Anna Anthony argues that working out how to raise attainment needs consensus on who it is that universities are helping

Anna Anthony is a Senior Analyst at the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) Service

The Office for Students (OfS) has said it will not prescribe the types of outreach interventions that providers should deliver in schools to raise attainment, or the attainment outcomes on which these interventions should have an impact.

As a result, these are both questions that outreach practitioners and evaluators across the country are now grappling with.

But there is yet another question we need to consider – whose attainment should we be raising, and to what grades?

Before we can begin to look at what we can do to help raise attainment in schools, we need to try to understand why, and for whom, the OfS designed this policy.

Having clear in our minds who we are trying to help will should influence what is delivered on the ground.

Moral duty or regulatory requirement?

When John Blake was appointed as the OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, he set out his expectations that outreach delivered by providers must focus on improving pre-16 attainment. He emphasized that “Universities and colleges have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel” to help close attainment gaps in schools.

Add to this the growing fear that the cost-of-living crisis will further damage the life chances of disadvantaged children, and it is more important now than ever that we accurately target resources towards those students most in need of support with their attainment.

The rationale for universities’ involvement in raising attainment in schools is often based on data showing that a lack of performance at Key Stage 4 (GCSE) is the greatest barrier to subsequent entry to university.

Specifically, research has shown that students who fail to pass English and Maths at GCSE level are much less likely to pursue an academic pathway towards higher education. This is also true of outreach participants, as evidence from HEAT shows stark differences in higher education progression, depending on participants’ GCSE attainment. The main reason we have a socio-economic gap in higher education is because such a high proportion of disadvantaged students fail to achieve this GCSE benchmark.

For this reason, John Blake, has also stated that raising attainment in schools is “a challenge which affects us all”.

It follows, therefore, that to narrow the socio-economic gap in higher education and to ensure equality of opportunity, which is the Office for Students’ national objective (precise Key Performance Measure for Access pending at time of writing), attainment-raising outreach should be targeted toward learners who are not already ‘on track’ to achieve at Key Stage 4.

The corollary to this is that working with pupils who are on track to achieve at Key Stage 4 will not help narrow the socio-economic gap in higher education. It has been argued that these learners are “deadweight”, a term used to describe the diversion of resources towards individuals who are already on the “conveyor belt” to higher education.

Yet new research from HEAT has shown that attainment-raising outreach has not, historically, been targeted towards these lower attaining learners. So why is that?

Policy tensions

There are competing priorities at play here that need to be considered. On the one hand, the OfS say we have a “moral duty” to help the most disadvantaged learners. On the other hand, individual providers are held to account by OfS for the Access and Participation gaps at their own institutions and must set themselves targets in their Access and Participation Plans (APP) to reduce these gaps over time.

For some providers, engaging lower attaining learners, before the age of 16, will not help improve the Access and/or Participation gaps at their own institutions and, thus, there are clear tensions between these institution level priorities and the national level aim.

A survey conducted by HEAT of 84 current members’ APPs from 2020/21 to 2024/25 found that outreach delivery tends to be driven by institutional priorities rather than any national level priorities or what might be perceived as moral responsibility. This is likely to be particularly true at a time when resources are scarce. After all, rising costs will be felt by all – not just families and schools, but universities and colleges too.

Cuts to Uni Connect may mean even fewer opportunities for the most disadvantaged

Perhaps most concerning is the finding from HEAT’s report that Uni Connect Partnerships are doing most of the “heavy lifting” when it comes to engaging lower attaining learners. Although not surprising, in the light of universities’ APP “recruitment” targets, this raises questions around whether opportunities for lower attaining learners will decline along with the funding for Uni Connect partnerships. Continued data collection through HEAT is clearly needed to monitor the situation to ensure that opportunities for learners who need them most are in place.

Narrowing the gap at high tariff?

While I have argued that engaging learners with higher prior attainment is less likely to have an impact on the national aim to closing the socio-economic gap in progression to higher education, there is another national aim to consider: closing the socio-economic gap at high tariff providers.

It could, therefore, also be argued that providers have a role to play in raising the grades of already high attaining students, for example, those on track to get 7s, to achieve 8s and 9s, and therefore cultivate the academic standards needed to attend high tariff universities. Was this the type of attainment raising OfS had in mind for high tariff universities?

And, if so, is this fair on those providers which are committed to raising grades of 3s to 4s? This speaks to the uncomfortable tension between the economic and social justice aims of WP policy more broadly, that often means policies can be disjointed when delivered in practice.

Consensus is needed now

Agreement across the sector, supported by guidance from the Office for Students, is needed now to determine those for whom this policy is intended. Is it the low attaining group identified in the HEAT analysis, or should we also be concerned with raising the attainment of higher attaining pupils?

Can we do both? Should only certain types of institution be focusing their finite resources on the learners from lower attainment bands identified above, or is there a place for this in all providers’ APPs? What is our “moral duty” and what if this is incompatible with reducing institution-level Access gaps? More guidance is clearly warranted as universities start focusing on the next APP cycles.

Whatever the OfS position on the above, the assumption that attainment raising activities should be targeted towards lower attaining learners remains compelling. But as the OfS have left providers to make decisions about how they deliver their attainment raising activities, clarity around the correct targeting of attainment raising outreach is required now if we want to maximise support for those disadvantaged learners not currently on track to enter higher education, though probably capable of doing so.

This is just the start

Finally, although targeting is fundamental, it is of course just the start. Many questions remain around what constitutes an attainment raising outreach activity. This policy has come at a difficult time for many schools, with some schools reporting they are now ‘part of the welfare state’, describing growing numbers of pupils coming to school hungry or without a clean uniform and rates of absenteeism increasing, all things that will almost certainly have a negative impact on attainment.

As schools struggle to contend with these issues, we need a clearer understanding of how universities can use the unique expertise they hold to contribute to closing the attainment gap. Should this be limited to academic support or is it within their remit to tackle other issues such as absenteeism or poor nutrition? Yet, before we can begin to look at how outreach providers can help raise attainment, we need consensus as to who it is we are helping. The answer to this question will inevitably help to determine what is delivered.

One response to “Is attainment raising about moral obligation or regulatory requirement?

  1. Thought provoking and timely article. For far too long, outreach providers have been able to target with impunity to suit their own agendas. Targeting already high attainers will not widen participation in HE. But that is exactly what many providers are effectively being incentivised to do. We need a complete rethink about how we can help raise attainment and for whom, and this article is a powerful reminder to us all.

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