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The HE sector should seize the day on school-university partnerships

As OfS invites variations to access and participation plans with a focus on working with schools, Julian Crockford eyes the opportunities
This article is more than 2 years old

Julian Crockford is a researcher and evaluator in the Student Experience Evaluation and Research team at Sheffield Hallam University.

You don’t need to be an astute reader of the runes to see the signs that Augur (sorry!) a renewed policy focus on universities and schools working together to improve outcomes for disadvantaged young people.

New OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation John Blake and further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan have been kind enough to spell out the government’s expectations that:

…universities will be expected to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged students in the schools and colleges across the region.

The unexpected hits you between the eyes

This isn’t a surprise – a steady state of school and university partnerships has long held, going way way back into the prehistory of Aimhigher. Whether directly through individual HE providers or through collaborative networks, university WP and recruitment departments have always relied on close working relationships with partner schools. Indeed, sector-wide programmes such as UniConnect go so far as to embed programme staff within schools and colleges to smooth and facilitate this partnership process.

During a previous policy intervention, Theresa May played matchmaker, encouraging even stronger and more committed relationships, when she proposed that universities direct some of their WP funding towards sponsoring or even establishing schools.

Despite some notable successes, for example a partnership led by Kings College London which runs a successful maths specialist school, the idea petered out in the face of many logistical and practical challenges, not to mention the seeming enormity of the task for many HE providers.

I suspect very few people would argue with the principle that close working relationships between universities, FE and schools benefit young people, as well as the partners themselves. The benefits get murkier, however, when these kinds of relationships are pushed through as policy.

The top-down pressure that this exerts can deform and even break otherwise effective local arrangements. So, the key question for the whole sector is – how do we marshal this renewed policy push to ensure the best outcome for widening participation?

Square pegs and round holes

In his timeless analysis of policy enactment, What is Policy? Texts, Trajectories and Toolboxes, Stephen Ball describes how policy “ad hocery” by practitioners can lead to policy outcomes other than those intended by the policy framer. He argues that policy enactors often co-opt and adapt policy drivers to pursue their own ends.

Richard Steer and colleagues provide a concrete example of this process in their analysis of learning and skills sector policy implementation in the late nineties. They observe that some staff:

…strategically and even ingeniously comply with the demands of external policy levers, whilst acting in accord with their own professional values and judgement.

I mention these examples to flag an opportunity for us, as a combined secondary, further and higher education sector, to hijack the potential for productive change offered by a renewed policy focus on partnership working. It generates a space to work together to secure the best possible outcomes for disadvantaged and underrepresented young people.

While the detail of the policy is still taking shape, we have an opening to collaboratively think through the needs of, and the opportunities for, each part of the sector, and to build a model that works for everyone.

This kind of partnership working is what we do at the Villiers Park Educational Trust, and we see a clear opportunity to develop what we do as an organisation, but more importantly to think about what we can collectively do as a sector.

Let’s do away with computers

For this reason, we have hosted a couple of collaborative workshops designed to bring together colleagues from schools, FE, universities and the third sector, to explore how we can work better together to improve outcomes and attainment for disadvantaged pupils.

We have begun work on a collaborative framework that matches the needs and offers of each part of the sector. Early outcomes won’t surprise anyone with experience of trying to make these kinds of partnerships work.

One of the key issues concerns effective communication. Despite being pitched a tidal wave of potential opportunities, school partners describe often struggling to find HE-delivered outreach activities that respond to their needs at appropriate times in the year. For their part, higher education partners find it difficult to access the most appropriate contacts within schools, to target information about their events or to explore collaborative opportunities for refining their offer for specific partners.

Similarly, colleagues described room for improvement in terms of knowledge exchange processes – our ability to connect colleagues with valuable and relevant knowledge (about particular academic subjects, regional contexts, career pathways etc) with those who need that expertise.

At this stage in the process, the general sense then is of a wide range of high quality interventions, offers and expertise distributed across a diverse sector, but no robust mechanism for making the productive connections that can valorise it. The challenge for all of us is to work out how to most effectively join up what we do, across the sector and across the student lifecycle.

The next in our series of workshops (at the end of May / early June – date tbc) looks at this issue from a policy perspective and will include contributions from John Blake and representatives from Ofsted. For more information about the event, you can follow Villiers Park on Eventbrite.

At Access all areas – getting in and getting on we’ll assess the current access and participation landscape and consider what will need to change in terms of outreach, information, advice, and guidance, partnerships and pathways between providers, and on-course student support to sustain and grow education opportunity in the years ahead. On Tuesday 10 May at the Mermaid in London: register now.

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