As the impacts of the pandemic take their toll, particularly on disadvantaged students, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey into higher education.
I know I am not alone when I say my journey to university was against all the odds. Growing up on a working class, council house estate, I lived with my Mom and my Grandad. The idea of university was unheard of amongst my family and friends and my own barriers to higher education were exacerbated by the fact my Mom was disabled and also an alcoholic.
Those I grew up with were more focused on getting out of education and gaining financial security, rather than delaying their entry into the world of work by attending university. So what enabled me to be so different?
In the run up to my A-Level exams, I was rarely at college due to the rapid deterioration of my Mom’s health. The night before my first exam, my Mom passed away from kidney and liver failure and at that moment, my plans for not only higher education but my future felt completely lost.
What enabled me to stay focused and progress to university was compassionate, genuine and meaningful dialogue with tutors who were completely invested in my future. They committed their time to understand my circumstances, the challenges I was facing and helped me to still see higher education as an achievable option by guiding me through the process one step at a time.
Connecting vs contacting
The recent Pathways for Potential Report by the Russell Group highlighted that a lack of knowledge about higher education and a lack of practical support for decision-making impacts negatively on those students from under-represented groups. We know that this will be further exacerbated by the current pandemic and the consequent school and college closures.
Students across the UK are having to navigate the educational terrain with a limited sense of direction and many disadvantaged young people have been left without mentors or role models that can not only guide them, but understand them.
Covid-19 has intensified the obstacles that trigger disengagement and alienation towards education. The work of widening participation teams should therefore play a key role in facilitating genuine and meaningful interactions in order to support young people to address the new challenges they face, and equip them to make informed choices about their future.
That means that our focus should be on transformation rather than transmission – because disadvantaged students need to be connected with and not just “contacted”. Understanding the role that dialogue and pedagogy can play is therefore so important.
Dialogue and pedagogy
It would be daft to assume that “pedagogy” is only worth exploring in the context of formal university teaching. Widening participation interventions can be transformative if pedagogical theories are explored and developed in practice, and understanding the role of dialogue can make a real difference in disrupting the practices that produce educational inequality.
Lower income students are disproportionately subject to didactic, teacher-controlled, ‘teaching-to-the-test’ pedagogies. This should therefore challenge access practitioners to consider why part of our offer to schools and colleges often includes a menu of prescriptive, teacher-controlled sessions on things like student finance, or the benefits of higher education.
Those of us familiar with teaching will acknowledge that effective teachers carefully plan and implement appropriate pedagogy – and that learning is dependent on the approaches used. So what does this look like in a widening participation context? The effectiveness of approaches in a widening participation intervention relies on understanding the diverse needs of learners and empowering young people to articulate their thoughts freely, in order to construct their own unique understanding of what higher education means for them.
At Aspire to HE, we know that to ameliorate the negative effects of poverty on a young person’s educational outcomes, intensive, curriculum driven programmes are essential. Through an evidence-based knowledge curriculum developed in partnership with the Centre for Education and Youth, we support cohorts of learners to explore relevant and relatable content related to higher education in small groups.
Active not passive
The focus on dialogue in this curriculum enables disadvantaged learners to play an active role in the learning process and the content embeds prior knowledge and experiences as an important learning tool. We believe that this, accompanied with campus experience days and targeted mentoring, has the potential to drastically transform participation across the Black Country and Telford and the Wrekin.
We should never underestimate the power of dialogue in shaping a learner’s thinking. The effectiveness of an outreach intervention often depends on the effectiveness of its delivery and the rapport that is developed between the facilitator and the participants. However, pedagogical understanding and appreciation for the role of dialogue is far too often neglected from widening participation interventions and practitioner training.
The success of higher education outreach interventions therefore relies on the ability of widening participation practitioners to migrate away from traditional, didactic practices. To put it simply, a one hour assembly on the benefits of higher education delivered by one passionate university graduate won’t always have the desired effect.
For that reason, we require a collective effort to develop strategies that empower disadvantaged students to question the dominant societal misconceptions about university and enable them to explore their own interests related to their educational options.
I think that means collectively interrogating the role of pedagogy in outreach – and developing methods that enable understanding that is not only accessible to researchers and academics, but to the enthusiastic practitioners who work directly with vulnerable students in a variety of educational settings.
Alleviating the impacts of Covid-19
In the pandemic students from all backgrounds will have been personally impacted by the current circumstances. This may be financially, socially, emotionally, physically and there may even be students in a similar position to me 8 years ago, struggling with a bereavement or an addiction in the family that has been amplified due to significant stress and uncertainty.
If we are passionate about continuing to support young people and ensure the progress made in widening participation is not lost, then we need to develop greater flexibility with content and delivery. We need to provide tailored assurance that meets individuals where they are in their educational journey. Embedding meaningful and compassionate dialogic pedagogies into our interventions both now and beyond Covid-19 is a challenge we face together, and one I would like to see us work collectively to address.