Our response to the Education Committee's "Value for money in Higher Education" report

We welcome a number of the findings in the House of Commons Education Committee’s report: Value for money in higher education.

The report highlights a series of challenges that are key to ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access, succeed, and benefit from Higher Education.

We fully agree with the Committee's position that the current system of funding Higher Education is "widely misunderstood". In seeking to promote "better public understanding" we endorse an approach which provides funding for the enhanced training of teachers and careers advisors, and provides support for other key influencers including parents. As a recent CfE report (2018) for the Office for Studies pointed out, "support[ing] the supporters" is crucial if we are to make progress towards the goal of fair access.

A number of the report's recommendations focus on the provision of greater data for students including:

  1. more information on contextual admissions policies,

  2. better statistics on labour market outcomes,

  3. the publication of a breakdown of how universities and HEIs spend tuition fees.

While we approve of these objectives, we believe that it is essential for policymakers to emphasise the importance of structured advice and guidance alongside more sources of information.

The Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) points out that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice. It is simply too difficult." The response to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”.

If we are to support young people in making difficult decisions, we need to ensure that networks of support are in place so that young people are provided with the information they require and the guidance they urgently need.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”

We work with schools and colleges all around the country, in all sorts of circumstances. Here we catch up with one of our Access Champions schools in the West Midlands, which we’ve been working with over the past few months as part of our work with the Sutton Trust.

St Edmund Campion Catholic School is an average-sized comprehensive in Erdington, Birmingham, and we’ve been working with Sandra Griffiths, who is the Post-16 Learning Leader at the school.

The sixth form has 130 students on roll. 28% of students are in receipt of free school meals, and a high percentage of sixth form students would be the first generation of their family to go to HE.

This is one of the key things we look out for when working with schools, as there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that family background is a key factor in improving social mobility.

Early on in the programme we ask Access Champions to look at how they currently support students when choosing to apply to university, and help them identify quick changes to make to those systems that could make an immediate impact on students.

One such change that Sandra made was to move progression activities, such as personal statement and reference writing, to earlier in the school year. A small change, but one that has had a powerful impact: students now get more support with admissions interviews.

This means they have more confidence, and improving mock interviews for competitive courses, such as Medicine and Dentistry, had led to two students getting offers to study Medicine this year, as well as others getting offers to study Nursing and Teaching.

On top of those simple changes, we also help Access Champions to look more long-term. Sandra’s plan for progression is to support students with informed decision-making and to organise access to HE days for Year 12 students in collaboration with local HE institutions.

We’re really looking forward to seeing how those plans come to fruition over the coming weeks and months, as this year’s university application cycle begins in earnest.

Our response to the Association of Colleges' 2030 and beyond report

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The Association of Colleges has today called for a radical shake-up of post-18 education in England to create a world-class system that supports more people to learn, train and retrain throughout their lives.

In its 2030 and beyond: an upgraded post-18 education system report it also proposes a major re-design of the country’s higher technical education offer to provide a credible alternative route to a BA/BSc degree, including:

  • New national qualifications developed locally to meet employer and labour market needs and built on those already working well.
  • Government reform to grant, fee and loan rules to incentivise and support new one and two-year courses at Levels 4 and 5.
  • The same fee cap and loan/maintenance arrangements to be made available for students of all ages who take up the new national qualifications part-time or full-time.
  • Access to financial support for living costs, travel and childcare.

We heartily agree: colleges are engines of social mobility, and this important and timely call to action by the Association of Colleges is one which we thoroughly endorse in its ambition to make the post-18 education system accessible to everyone, reintroduce means-tested maintenance grants, and ensure we have a workforce appropriately skilled for the future labour market.

We urge everyone to read the report, and for government to heed its messages.

“One of the best applications I have ever read”

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At the end of the school year, we take a moment to catch up with one of our Access Champions to reflect on the programme and the impact it’s been making on students on the ground in Nottinghamshire.

Quarrydale Academy is a school that serves former mining communities in Nottinghamshire, where there are high levels of unemployment: 92% of students live in POLAR Quintile 1 areas, meaning they are among the least likely to go to university. There are 130 students on roll in years 12 and 13.

Leanne Straw is Quarrydale’s UCAS co-ordinator, and the school’s Access Champion. We’ve been working with her over the past year to understand the school’s situation, and identify ways to improve the academy’s support for students when working out what they want to do at the age of 18.

One of the first things we ask Access Champions to do is identify areas for improvement within the school. During her first year with us, Leanne prioritised changing Quarrydale’s approach to personal statements and references, and using OSCAR, our online platform, to personalise Information, Advice and Guidance for students during tutorial periods.

One of our Progression Specialists also spent time in Quarrydale providing one-to-one mentoring to students,  an important channel of support for prospective students in Years 10-11.

Leanne told us that being on the Access Champions programme has “helped a lot with planning”, providing structure for, and evidence to support, changes she’s made in the sixth form.

Using our OSCAR system has “completely changed our approach to personal statements and references.” Personal statements are now much more focused on specific courses and all “now include a topic of academic interest”, which helps present students in the best possible light to admissions tutors and offsets the disadvantage that many students face from a lack of opportunity to take part in work experience or placements while in sixth form. This led to one applicant, applying for Nursing at Nottingham University, being told by the admissions tutor that their personal statements was “one of the best applications I have ever read”.

Students have provided Leanne with “incredibly positive” feedback about mentoring, which has provided support that parents may not always be able to provide.

After analysing data, Leanne and her team will be targeting an increase in young male applicants applying for more competitive courses such as Medicine and Teaching in the next UCAS cycle.

We’re delighted to see how well things are going at Quarrydale, and look forward to working with Leanne over the next school year to make even more of a difference.

A day in the life of a Progression Specialist

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Sarah Baylis is one of our team of Progression Specialists, working in schools on our Access Champions programme to provide students with advice and guidance on options and approaches to Higher Education. Here she talks us through her day mentoring students at a school on the Isle of Wight.

There’s just time to grab a quick coffee before jumping aboard the Red Jet this morning. It’s another beautiful day and this 25-minute sailing across the Solent is fast becoming my favourite commute. Once on the other side it’s a brisk walk, uphill, to my island school. I sign in at reception and head to my office for the day. I have half an hour to get my breath back and prepare for a day of mentoring sessions with students I’ve been working with for the past few months as part of our Access Champions programme, which we’re running on the island in partnership with the Southern Universities Network.

My first session is with a student who wants to study economics at university and, ironically, the focus is on finance. We discuss tuition fees and maintenance loans and I introduce her to a calculator tool so she can go home and work out how much she may be eligible for with her family. We also cover average student expenditure so she can work out roughly what additional funds may be needed. It’s not much of a surprise to find that my student is fully engaged with the session, considering her interest in maths and finance. We finish by looking at some of the universities that she is interested in and discussing what they have to offer her. This student is predicted high grades and has a good work ethic so has a good range of options.

My next session starts with a discussion about nothing at all HE related as my student is a massive Saints fan and we have a lot to catch up with since our last session, including remaining in the Premier League! The informal chat helps to build relationships with the students and puts them more at ease to ask questions that they might otherwise feel reluctant or awkward to ask. This student needs help to weigh up his options. He has a real love of life and many varied pathways to take. We begin work on a comparison grid to help him get some clarity.

My remaining sessions involve looking at dentistry courses with one student and apprenticeships with another. It’s interesting to compare how students feel about ‘leaving the island’. Some will only consider south coast options, so that they know they can get home for the weekend if they feel they need to. Others can’t wait to get away and feel it is their chance to fly. Looking for apprenticeships on the island can be a challenge and sadly reduces options for those who wish to stay and do not want to go on to Higher Education.

Before leaving I have an additional session with a student in Year 13 who has suddenly decided he’d like to go to university after all and is seeking some advice. I also have a brief chat with the school’s Access Champion [the member of staff we work with to help improve the school’s approach to HE applications] to finalise details for a parents’ information evening that we are running together after half term. Finally, I send brief messages and emails to the parents of the students I have seen today. Then I pack up my laptop and resources and head off to catch the ferry back to Southampton. As usual, this ends up being a bit of a speed walk, but thankfully it’s downhill this time!

The crossing home gives me time for reflection; to think about how to move things forward in the next session or ponder alternative pathways for those not following a straightforward route into Higher Education. Many rarely travel across the water, so to consider moving to the mainland for at least the next three years can seem especially daunting. But staying on the island and finding good career prospects is also challenging. Living on an island can make access to the events and information needed to make these decisions even more difficult, and costly when you factor in ferry travel. As I travel back my phone buzzes with a response from one of the parents: a lovely message thanking me for my support for her daughter and saying the sessions have opened up a dialogue in their household that she feels would never have happened otherwise. It’s good to know that the sessions are helping and information is making a difference!