Reflections on the future of social mobility

I’ve been thinking about the Bridge Group’s conference “Raising the Stakes: Collective Action in Pursuit of Social Mobility”, hosted by KPMG at their offices in Canary Wharf earlier this month.

The late Maya Angelou (1928-2014), acclaimed poet, essayist and civil rights activist once said:

If you are going down a road and don’t like what’s in front of you, and look back and don’t like what you see, get off the road. Create a new path

After forty years of researching, teaching about, and working in a number of roles to promote wider participation in higher education, I find myself not much liking what I see in front of me, nor what we are leaving behind – in so far as, it seems, it will largely dictate what is to come.

Déjà vu

What I see in front of me is very similar to what I saw when I first started full-time teaching in further education (including “HE in FE”) back in 1979. The great sadness and frustration is that we seem to have learned only a little in the intervening years, and particularly about collaborative working.

For example, during that time, there have been repeated calls for greater collaboration and partnership working to tackle what is acknowledged to be a complex set of access and widening participation challenges. Collaborations and partnerships there have been, but too few of any real size, duration or impact because they disappeared too soon. Prominent and fairly recent examples, would be those regional and sub-regional partnerships created to deliver the national Aimhigher objectives (2004-2011); another would be the Lifelong Learning Networks designed to deliver greater progression between FE and HE (2004-2010). In both cases, the government “pulled-the-funding-plug” far too early – a view which I argued at the time. Outside of these arenas, other partnerships of note during that time included Combined Universities Cornwall, and University College Suffolk.

Plus ça change

So, today, the call goes out yet again for more collaboration and partnership working but this time with a much stronger (indeed imperative) message about better impact measurement.

Those who make these calls do so with sincerity and passion, as evidenced by the conference keynote speeches by Justine Greening, Alan Milburn, and Mike Savage. However, one of the things they –and many, many others – seem not to have learned is that genuine partnership working takes much longer to deliver “the goods” than other ways of working. However, if well designed, grounded, and led – the changes brought about by collaboration and partnership are deeper and more sustainable.

Perhaps, the best example of this with which I am familiar, is the Higher York Partnership, founded in 2002 and to become the country’s first Lifelong Learning Network with government funding from 2004. The partners – York St John University, University of York, York and Askham Bryan Colleges, the City of York Council, and formerly Craven College – took the strategic decision to maintain and develop the partnership through a subscription membership once the LLN funding finished in 2010.

Higher York’s Annual Report (2014-15) summarises just some of the sustained and progressive change the partnership has brought about, building on work over that thirteen year period:

  • There were 1,027 undergraduate entrants from North Yorkshire schools and colleges progressing into the universities within Higher York, an increase of nearly 6% from the previous year
  • More than 435 students progressed from Higher York institutions to undergraduate courses in the city
  • Green Apples delivered higher education awareness activities to over 450 Year 6 pupils at 11 primary schools, 186 Year 9 pupils and 293 Year 10 and 11 pupils. These are substantial increases from previous years
  • 202 children graduated from York Children’s University in March 2015, while 700 children and their parents attended ‘Children’s University in the City’ mini-lectures – again, substantial increases over the previous year
  • We delivered training to businesses with a combined value of around £15 million.

Much of this work, now even more embedded, continues, sustained largely by the partnership itself and amongst other priorities. Of course, there can be no guarantees that such a partnership will remain forever and certainly not if the mood music coming from Whitehall and Westminster is that longevity and sustainability are of little value

Although Higher York was the vehicle for attracting further temporary additional government funding (NCOP), once again central policy regarding access and participation in higher education seems incapable of supporting work designed for deeper, longer-lasting positive changes. Instead, those in power once again require funded interventions to demonstrate more-or-less immediate impact. Of course, “s/he who pays the piper names the tune” and quick returns on the investment of public money is always likely to be a political priority.

If quick returns are the priority, then learn the lessons of history and stop calling for greater collaboration and partnership working to widen participation. If, however, the real priority is to significantly and permanently change the social and economic student profile in our universities and colleges, then collaboration/partnership working is essential – but please don’t look always, or only, for quick wins.

And, in terms of looking at where we seem to be going, and where we have been, why do we continue to cling to the language of “access” and “participation” – and equally, to seem to see them as largely unrelated? Access is about “outreach” I hear, and “participation” is about “in-reach”. Quite different things, it is said, requiring different skills, personnel, and techniques. Looking at our agenda in this way has served us pretty well for nearly half a century, one might say. Oh no, it hasn’t in my view – and most importantly, it certainly won’t going forward.

Dropping access and participation

Access (“who gets in to university”) is a simple idea for everyone to grasp – parents, politicians, employers, potential students, and the media. It is a term which also presents the opportunity for what appear to be simple solutions, such as “outreach” to schools by universities and others. Naturally, if we widen the social, economic and educational background of those entering HE – and there has been some success in this, but not nearly enough for our future social and economic stability – we must also consider whether the “learning diet” (syllabuses, teaching and learning approaches, assessment, and so on) now reflects the new diversity of students. We know, after many years of research and practice, that students feel more at home and generally achieve more if they can see themselves or people like them and their communities, in the subjects they study. And this applies just as much in STEM subjects, for example through the scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians used to explore the subject. As can be seen, participation is also seemingly a simple idea to grasp.

However, perhaps most significantly of all, these two ideas feel like the proverbial comfortable old slippers. We know what they mean. We know what they point us to do and how to plan for it. We continue to believe they can deliver the change we need. Well, looking at this agenda in these ways hasn’t helped us achieve anything like enough so far. Of course, they have delivered some change, especially for those who have benefited directly from it.

However, is it lasting and sustainable change? Will continuing to focus on access and participation respond to the conference’s call to raise the stakes and genuinely deliver “collective action in pursuit of social mobility”? This comfortable pair of slippers no longer reflects, nor can it deliver, the goals and objectives we now have relating to social mobility. They belong to another era. We need more dynamic concepts which reflect the collective action needed to make the changes now identified by the social mobility evidence.

A new narrative of engagement

For me, one concept – that of engagement – might be able to replace both. A new pair of slippers, as you might say. Engagement speaks to dynamic and reciprocal communications, between government, universities, schools, parents, employers, the third sector and other organisations around this agenda and, of course, between all these organisations and students – whether already in HE or with the potential to be there. We need a new language to make the great leap forward the country needs in who goes into HE, who succeeds once there, and how they get on afterwards. Language describes what we do and, in turn, what we do defines the language we use to describe it.

Since its founding, The Bridge Group has been at the vanguard of exploring new aspects of social mobility and pushing the boundaries of debate about it. Its work on engagement with HE in rural and coastal areas, and with employers, being just two examples. Current work in the pipeline over the coming months – for example, regarding league tables, mature students, and diversity as an asset in the classroom – illustrate its continuing commitment to challenge the terms of reference of the debate and the evidence on which it is based.

With the continuing work of the Bridge Group and others, supported by as many as are willing to make the journey, we can escape the history of access and participation and the educational jargon which surrounds them. If we are genuine and sincere about raising the stakes and pursuing greater social mobility through collaborative action, we need all members and organisations of civil society to come on board. The starting point for this is to escape the current and historic ways (widening access and widening participation) we have used to describe and define our goals, and the means to achieving them such as outreach. We need a new language of engagement which everyone can embrace. We need to be brave.

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