Michelle Donelan is today announcing the appointment of John Blake as the new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students.
The appointment is being accompanied by a set piece speech from the minister, and guidance for the new postholder of the independent regulator, which makes clear that universities will be expected to reshape their Access and Participation plans to focus much more on pre-18 attainment, and employability and outcomes post graduation.
So who is John Blake, and what does his appointment mean for a new direction of travel on widening participation?
Back to basics
A renewed focus on pre-18 attainment explains why John has been appointed, above all else (and I should caveat this by saying that I have known John, as a colleague and good friend, for many years). He is, after all, not from the HE sector. He is an expert educationalist but his career has been in and around schools – serving as a teacher and senior leader in schools for a decade, and then for the last few years working in the central team at the Harris Federation, for Policy Exchange, and most recently at Ark Schools. Along the way, he also set up Labour Teachers, a grassroots network for….well, have a guess. He also, helpfully for the sector, has a decade long history of writing publicly on education. He is no card carrying Conservative, or placeman. He is an expert in education policy, in stakeholder relations, and in communications.
To understand what drives John – and why, in common with an influential number of people on this government’s educational agenda, he can hold generally left wing views while being utterly convinced of the need to raise educational standards, and feel much more comfortable supporting a Conservative government to do so – one needs to understand the Gove reforms that have taken place in schools over the past decade. One also needs to understand Basingstoke.
The Gove reforms in schools had at their heart a distinct moral purpose – which is that to raise educational standards was the greatest humanising act that governments can do. To quote a speech Gove gave shortly before the 2010 election:
Education has an emancipatory, liberating, value. I regard education as the means by which individuals can gain access to all the other goods we value – cultural, social and economic – on their terms. I believe education allows individuals to become authors of their own life story.
But in a sense, doesn’t everyone believe that? Where Gove advanced the agenda was to claim that it is the right that can truly deliver on this agenda. The left, he argued, didn’t really believe that. Or rather, they believed in it at rhetorical level, but not in policy. Because by doing what they did – on curriculum, or on exams, or on the role of schools being to address wider issues, or on a belief in the power of central guidance over local innovation – they in fact harmed, rather than helped, the very people who they aimed to improve the lives of.
One can, of course, debate that. But the reason for this brief diversion into educational philosophy is that this message – that Labour was not the party for really raising standards for all, because they would not commit to the tools that did it – was one that fiercely attracted a generation of Labour voting teachers and educational activists that formed in many ways the vanguard of the Gove supporters in education. Many of the early multi academy trust chief executives, or free school heads, or others who have set the intellectual weather for the English state school system since 2010, were, or are, Labour voters and supporters. But they wanted to raise standards in a way which the Gove reforms allowed them to do, and they were attracted to the argument that Labour, for all its professed good intentions, was not able to do this.
The road from Basingstoke
John Blake is one of those who were attracted into politics and policy because of the Gove reforms. His entire professional and personal history is one of seeking to improve standards, but doing so in a way which occasionally breaks with traditional educational orthodoxy. And much of this is informed by Basingstoke, where he comes from. Basingstoke is not on anyone’s list of left behind (or levelling up) areas. It is not naturally the focus of widening participation activity. But for John, if policy doesn’t improve outcomes for people in Basingstoke, then it isn’t working.
John has an instinctive interest in and affection for the kind of places he grew up, in suburban and provincial England, and wants to create policy for the people who live in those places—people from the aspirant working class background —policy that works for them and, what is perhaps more crucial, they see and feel works for them. In his view, these people do not want much from government, and they expect even less, but it deeply concerns him that these people are not merely disenchanted with education and politics but increasingly entirely disengaged from it. They think the country is run by people who do not respect or value them, and that traditional routes to engaging in the future of the country including through achieving good educational outcomes at 18 and beyond is pointless.
Universities’ role should be aimed at those who cannot afford, and actually have no especial desire to buy, private education for their children, but who have watched successive governments of both parties focus on the most deprived communities and who have seemed to have too little time for those further up the ladder.
What does it mean for universities?
DfE wants to drive a similar model of reform in universities to that which has happened in schools over the past decade. The parallels can be overdone, of course. We won’t have an Ofsted model of inspection for HE, nor will have a national curriculum, nor (that many) new providers. But what we will have is an unapologetic, laser-like focus on raising standards pre 18, for every student; and a willingness to take unorthodox approaches, take on shibboleths, and build unusual coalitions, in the interests of making progress. Universities will be tasked, as the guidance sets out, with significantly reshaping their Access and Participation plans to focus their efforts in this area.
It doesn’t mark a return to Theresa May and “every university should sponsor a MAT”. But it does mean – be in no doubt – a considerable increase in focus in this area, which needs to be marked by a concomitant increase in resources allocated to it.
The danger zone
All too often, when this agenda has been discussed, I have been in rooms where universities have either said “oh yes, well we do all this already”. Or alternatively (or sometimes, perplexingly, followed by) “yes, but this isn’t our role, we don’t know how to raise pre-18 attainment”. Neither of those lines will wash in this new climate.
Lots of universities do indeed do a lot of things now (though an analysis of the most current round of APP plans still shows a skewing of spend towards bursaries, which have a significantly weaker impact in raising attainment than other activities universities can do). But the fact is there is more that needs to be done. Too many Russell Group institutions and other high tariff universities don’t focus sufficiently on raising attainment among their own local students which would allow them to be admitted to those institutions to study. Too many universities in general are too quick to blame external factors for the regional disparities in who achieves, and who goes on to further study, nationally (and indeed, who then stays in education and goes on to get good jobs afterwards).
The sector isn’t doing enough, and should do more. And it stretches belief that institutions of scholarship can claim that they lack expertise in raising attainment among young people. If universities aren’t doing this research, and if they can’t design and roll out programmes of support for teachers, then who on earth can. If vice chancellors don’t want to be sent out of DfE or OfS with fleas in their ears, they should be advised not to make these arguments.
Of course, it will be up to universities to decide what their particular challenges are and how they will address it. I would fully expect different universities to propose different activities. Some may choose to focus on primary school attainment. Some may want to look at stretching the top end, or progress in maths and science, or on raising attainment of those furthest from current benchmarks. Others may want to address the wider challenges in their local area which hampers attainment. But the key thing is that they should be able to draw an evidence based line from the activity they do and pay for, to the raising of attainment of school aged students in their area. If they don’t, then they should expect a toughening of regulatory action from the new DfA – backed fully by the Secretary of State and his team.
I am delighted that the OfS has been charged with this agenda, and I think that John Blake is the man to lead it. I look forward to seeing a new wave of Access and Participation plans that show how it can be taken forward by the sector.