John Blake at #AccessAllAreas

OfS' John Blake opened our Access All Areas event in conversation with Mark Leach. Here's what he talked about.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Dragging students through a system they don’t benefit from is “appalling”, and sector critics of the links between access and quality are guilty of perpetrating the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

John Blake was clear and forceful in arguing for the need for multiple opportunities for young people to reflect on the suitability and direction of the stage of education they are about to enter. For Blake, the perception that degree level qualifications are an unalloyed good is problematic – he was clear that there are definitely students who do not benefit from traditional higher education and would be better served via another route.

He was clear that education is not just a conveyer belt to get people where they want to be, and that some suggestions to the contrary have been “problematic and patronising”.

If you’ve followed John Blake’s initial tenure as the OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, you’ll be used to language and opinions like this. His passion for the job – even given his first task was to write an OfS board paper in four days – shone through, and his background as a first-in-family higher education entrant that became a teacher because that was they only professional job he was aware of give him a personal insight that sits alongside years of experience in schools, think tanks, and multi-academy trusts.

His first impressions of the higher education sector have been that the diversity and breadth of activity are both a strength and a weakness.

One phrase he repeated on numerous occasions was that:

Education is an intervention

And it was both refreshing and challenging to hear clarity that education can and does address structural disadvantage and can change the lives of young people. Blake added that sometimes we are frightened of the power of learning to change the way people think and interact with the world (something that reads neatly across to debates around “citizens of nowhere” and the polarisation of political life in the UK being demarcated by higher education experience.

His first impressions of the higher education sector have been that the sheer diversity and breadth of activity and providers are both a strength and a weakness. It is easy to point to activity happening somewhere, but his challenge has been to ensure that appropriate interventions (for example on his common theme of schools and universities working together on pupil attainment) are happening reliably across the sector – Blake sees a role for the many third sector organisations in this space as go-betweens ensuring that schools are getting what they need and can use from interactions with universities.

One thing he feels universities can learn from schools is an engagement with data, evidence, and accountability. Schools went on that journey more than a decade ago (thanks to one Michael Barber, in part) – Blake sees a lingering suspicion about the place and value of data alongside other forms of evidence in some parts of the sector. More clearly, complaints about a lack of money sit poorly with someone who has experience of the constraints the school system works under.

The incoming cohorts may not have experience of statutory examinations and thus both they and we will know little about the gaps in skills and knowledge that may be present. Historically we’ve not paid much attention to transition between stages – but Blake characterises a “long chain” of education that may need to be unpicked at a later date.

On the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, in the same way as the 2012 fee reforms did not play out in the way that ministers expected we cannot be certain how the shift to the lifelong availability of pay loans will pay out. His “crude view” is to imagine that the bulk of higher education will continue as it is (age 18 three years) but there will more variation. He didn’t want to be pressed on a regulator role for supporting students directly in finding their way through lifelong learning, but did note that:

we are the office for students, not the office for universities.

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