Raising school attainment is vital, but it shouldn’t be zany

I like The Simpsons. And I like university access.

So it’s appropriate that one of my favourite episodes is “Homer goes to college”, in which our yellow protagonist is forced to attend a nuclear physics class at Springfield University, has misaligned expectations of the student experience, struggles academically, and eventually gets expelled for a prank involving a pig.

Lots of takeaways there for university access and success, but perhaps the best moment is – when it seems things can’t get worse – Homer says “The only antidote to a zany scheme, is an even zanier scheme!”. To which one of his new classmates mournfully replies: “Why does it have to be zany?”

New approach, questions remain

In Thursday’s response to its consultation on regulating HE access and participation, the Office for Students (OfS) confirmed its intention to redesign access and participation plans so that universities will be held to account against “a small number of outcomes-focused targets”. Some of these will be set by the OfS, with others set by institutions themselves. This, the OfS posits, will incentivise universities to focus on delivering a measurable impact on student outcomes, rather than just offering up a list of schemes and activities. There will be no more points awarded for effort.

Something that featured in the September consultation document, but not in the response, was a specific requirement for a target on “factors that contribute to raising attainment in schools”. Raising attainment is the focus of much outreach activity at universities, so many will be waiting to see how the OfS develops this theme when it publishes the detailed guidance in February.

What the OfS does here really matters. Whether and how it allows universities to specify targets for raising school attainment has the potential to strengthen collaborative working between universities and schools or to create perverse incentives. It can reward meaningful outcomes, or it can reward “an even zanier scheme”. Either way, the OfS is unlikely to remain silent on the matter.

Impact hard to pin down

Last February’s OfS advice to universities asked them to “set out how you will work with schools and colleges to support the attainment of those from underrepresented groups”. The guidance highlighted the outcomes to be pursued – e.g. improved progress between key stages, GCSE results, or Ofsted inspection outcomes – and acknowledged that “attainment in academic or specialist skills can be influenced by a variety of factors, which may form the basis of your short-term aims: improved subject knowledge, student confidence, learning environment [and] teaching quality”.

But the extent to which universities were expected to cite hard data – beyond explaining why they think their activities should impact long and short-term outcomes – was less clear. Showing the difference an intervention (in isolation) made to a school’s Progress 8 score is most likely impossible; showing that it improved the “learning environment” is very easy, but equally hard to tie back to any impact on university access.

Getting real about measurement

Universities have a valuable and distinctive role to play in helping to raise academic attainment in schools. This is particularly true when exposing them to ideas and techniques they would not ordinarily encounter through the school curriculum. That’s why, at The Brilliant Club, we have developed tools that enable our partner schools and universities to see the improvements made by pupils on our programmes in six specific competencies. In fact, some of our university partners – the University of Manchester, for example – are already using this data as part of their 2019-20 access and participation plans.

If the OfS really wants to develop an outcomes-based approach (which it says it does), and it cares about the efficacy of school-university partnerships (which it also says it does), then it will likely take this opportunity to encourage the setting of more meaningful and robust targets for universities.

Improvements in pupils’ academic knowledge and skills are measurable attainment outcomes, provided the metric is robust. And that’s what is key here – making sure the targets are robust. Targets that use single, one-dimensional measures of attainment would risk acting as a disincentive to lots of good work that doesn’t tick the box, while targets for impact on schools’ and pupils’ overall attainment (for example on GCSEs) could invite wild and dubious claims of causation in place of honest accounting for the impact of specific interventions.

There are many things which universities do to support schools as part of their broader civic and economic contribution, not least through their crucial role in education research and in delivering teacher training. But building pupils knowledge, skills and university readiness through outreach is also vital if we are to eliminate the gaps that exist in HE participation and success.

The signs are positive: Thursday’s consultation response shows that the OfS is serious about incentivising a true focus on outcomes. If they get the guidance on attainment raising right, it will send an important message that having impact matters more than having a zany scheme, sorry Homer.

One response to “Raising school attainment is vital, but it shouldn’t be zany

  1. Sure, having an impact doensn’t have to be zany, but in the grand scheme of HE policy, which which side of the boring dangerous scale do we think is most often being hit? If we’re not interested and engaged when we’re putting together a curriculum, if we’re not continually challenging ourselves within the parameters and structures we have in place, and if neccessary breaking out of them and creating new ones, then how can we possibly expect students to remain engaged. Students want safety and freedom. They want the ability to express themselves and they want security in the guidelines presented to them. In this day and age we can have all the fun of The Simpsons, with all the bright possibilities of real and rigorous attainment. But more than anything we need to be at a stage where we feel a little scared every day, and own that fear and turn that into real excitement about student learning. Because if we’re not doing that then we’re selling students, and ourselves, short. You only go to university once (ok, that’s not always true, but close enough).

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