Time to reboot models of engagement

Engaging with children from an earlier age, in new ways, can widen participation in higher education. Nik Marsdin discusses

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum at Lancaster University

The announcement of a change in stewardship of Fair Access capped a tumultuous two years for everyone working in widening access.

Covid-19 had already thrown access and participation plans in the fire as sweeping changes were required in delivery; pivoting to online, hybrid (a phrase none of us had used 18 months ago), and now a return to large-scale in-person events.

Extending outreach

While there is no avoiding that it has been a testing time for all, the sector has been forced to recognise and experiment with alternative methods and modes of outreach work.

There have been successes, challenges, and a great deal of learning about what works – and more importantly why, how, and with whom it works. The very fact that the perceived wisdom on how and where outreach takes place has been challenged is a positive move. The conversation has been opened, at last.

The enforced changes and experiments in delivery have paved the way for policy to follow suit and begin to encourage greater flexibility, innovation, and bravery in how and where interventions take place.

I wholeheartedly welcome the noises that have been coming from the Office for Students (OfS) and as a former children’s workforce employee find myself excited by the possibilities.

The flutters of information have been followed up with a series of briefings, conference presentations, and visits to institutions by senior members of the OfS that put further meat on the bones of some of their initial aspirations.

Two in particular challenge us to consider our role as outreach practitioners, and offer the potential to radically change the way in which we move beyond participation and develop sustainable models of engagement with children, young people, and families.

The recent announcement of a change in stewardship of the OfS sent tongues wagging and policy managers within institutions into fits of panic prior to Christmas. Since then we have seen intimations about the changes to be expected, comment from experts across the sector, and thoughts from the outgoing Chris Millward.

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

The need to evaluate is a recurring theme within widening participation, and something of an annual beating stick.

As Omar Khan from TASO pointed out, the issue in the sector is not necessarily about a lack of evaluation, it’s about lack of action following evaluation and a culture of evaluation that is unwaveringly positive. An awkward but inevitable truth is that through evaluation we learn that some interventions do not work as intended and as such we must innovate and change, which brings me neatly on to the OfS’ aspiration three.

Raising school attainment is an issue that seems to have regularly done the rounds since I began working in higher education. As John Blake rightly pointed out, educational and financial inequality begin at birth. The compounding effects over a child’s early life lead to a yawning chasm by the age of 16.

In Blackpool for instance, the difference in literacy rates between young people in receipt of free school meals and their most advantaged peers is 26 months. The Sutton Trust recently published a study that laid bare the inequality of access to nursery and pre-school places, making plain the differences in development levels among differing socio-economic groups at the time of entering Key Stage 1.

Such inequality gaps will come as no surprise to anyone working in any area of engagement with young people. However, what continually surprises me is that higher education widening participation tends only to begin engagement with young people around age 14.

Time for new boots

The perceived wisdom with the HE outreach sector of working exclusively with older children flies in the face of all the evidence and methodology drawn from other areas of intervention with young people.

By age 14, the inequality gaps are entrenched. With the gap so wide that the metaphorical horse has not only bolted but it is in the finishing enclosure being doused with buckets of cold water.

Unfortunately, (and to continue the metaphor) so many young people from structurally held-back communities are destined for the knackers’ yard rather than the winners’ enclosure.

After moving into widening participation four years ago from a career in children’s services and in the design of early interventions, it is of great interest to me that very different approaches are used to engage with groups of purportedly similar young people.

John Blake’s aspirations present the sector with an opportunity to follow the lead of their colleagues from within children’s services and the youth and community sector.

Engaging with children and young people from an earlier age is an extremely obvious route to increase contact with higher education and more broadly positive educational experiences. However, it’s not as easy as “doing more younger” leading to increased entry to HE.

Telling tales out of school

Working exclusively with young people within school settings leads to limited engagement from those who face the greatest barriers to progression.

Yet, other than a handful of projects, the sector operates a mono-methodology of engagement, via school-supported and school-sanctioned events and activities.

I do not believe there is an unwillingness to work outside of school settings. I do believe, however, that there is a lack of confidence and understanding in how to truly engage outside of school settings.

Schools are a captive audience; a session in a school guarantees you huge participation numbers. However, whether we can call this engagement is debatable. It depends very much on which area of the children’s workforce you happen to work in.

There is a tendency to draw the conclusion that high numbers of participants results in high levels of engagement and therefore an increased chance of entry into HE. It’s not necessarily true.

Smaller, more targeted interventions are regularly employed by agencies such as Children’s Social Care. It sets a good example that HE could follow when branching out into early engagement work.

Making it work

To begin to employ these methods would require a step change in sector-wide approaches to engagement. There are fantastic examples within the youth sector of how this can take place, and of how the gap between education and community can be bridged – many of which could be extended to building relationships with HE.

We often look to schools to form partnerships in order to build relationships. These relationships are often superficial and lack the depth of understanding of either context.

Youth and community services rely on voluntary participation, which builds deep and lasting trusted relationships. These organisations hold so much untapped power and potential in reaching those young people who feel the most disconnected from education.

Recognising their expertise and opening the conversation with the sector could be the key to bridging the gap of inequality facing young people. It could open up conversations with the young people who least have a reason to speak to us.

As a sector we can do what we’ve always done and get what we’ve always got, watching as inequality gaps widen further.

Or we can grab the opportunity for change that is being offered, take a risk by getting out of our comfort zone, and listen to young people telling us their truth. A truth that might be very uncomfortable to hear.

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