Our response to the Government's review of post-18 education

We recently contributed to the Government's major review of funding for post-18 education in England, which aims to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Our submission focused on three key themes:

1. Making sure that Higher Education is “accessible for all”.

We welcome the prominence the review gives to disadvantaged students.

If the new funding system is indeed to be “accessible for all” then care should be taken to ensure that any changes in the funding regime do not deter students from under-represented groups from participating in Higher Education.

While the overall Higher Education Participation Rate increased to 49% in 2015-16 there remain troubling gaps in the ability of disadvantaged and part-time students to access Higher Education.  Whatever the details of the new funding system, access for disadvantaged students needs to remain the top priority.

2. Putting schools and colleges at the heart of post-18 progression

The drivers of fair access – good attainment and effective guidance – are to be found in the classroom, but schools and colleges are largely overlooked in debates about post-18 progression.

To ensure that students can make informed post-18 choices, we need to shift the centre of gravity towards schools and colleges.

Schools and colleges face significant pressures on their existing resources. In order to enable schools and colleges to improve their post-18 destinations, we advocate setting up a Student Outcomes Fund with ringfenced funds made available to improve systems in schools and colleges. 

3. Strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance in the classroom

Most adults struggle to choose between five energy suppliers, but we expect students to be able to make rational choices between 37,000 UCAS courses.

If we want applicants to make appropriate choices about what and where to study then we need to offer better support. Providing more information is not the solution. Information overload has now reached a stage that experts have argued that students are being encouraged to make irrational decisions based on crude heuristics.

Research shows that students respond more effectively to “hot information” provided by trusted sources, such as teachers, as opposed to “cold information” provided in literature and on websites. Part of a Student Outcomes Fund should therefore be directed towards supporting teachers and other key influencers to make provide effective and personalised guidance for students.

The independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar and supported by experts from across the sector, are currently reviewing evidence. We look forward to seeing how the review progresses.

Partnerships for Change: conference wrap-up

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We've just got back from our Partnerships for Change conference, and it was wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues from the Widening Participation sector for a packed day looking at how institutions can work together to ensure better outcomes for students.

A huge thank you to everybody who came along and contributed so much to the discussions on the day - we're really grateful that you could join us. 

If you weren't able to make it, here's a quick run-down of some of the highlights:

You can watch each of the speeches and panel discussions from the main stage below, starting with Professor Lord Winston's keynote about how the brain learns and how important empathy is:

Our Director of Research, Dr Michael Englard, introduced the idea behind the 'wicked problem' of Widening Participation, and the work we're doing to drive systemic change in schools to improve outcomes for students. You can read more about this in Michael's blog on the TES website.

Here's Chris Millward's speech and Q & A about the marathon of Widening Participation and his priorities for the Office Students:

Here's our panel discussion about working in partnership in the field, chaired by Natalie Perera from the Education Policy Institute and featuring contributions from Femi Bola, Nikki Lane (East Coast College), Simon Pedley (Ormiston Academies Trust), Anand Shukla (Brightside)  and Sarah Young (Impetus-PEF):

The afternoon started with Martin Lewis' keynote looking at the way student finance is seen by students and their families:

And finally our plenary session which rounded the day off by looking at the perspective of schools, colleges and students with contributions from Jill Eatherden, Miriam Keith, Saeed Mahmood and Bojan Stankovic:

Thanks again for everybody's contributions - it wouldn't have been the same without you!

"Offer rates have been phenomenal"

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It’s almost a year since we started running our Access Champions programme, and we’re beginning to see results as students get offers from universities. Here we look at how the programme helped Jo Wilson, one of our Access Champions and Head of Sixth Form at Pingle Academy in Derbyshire.

Situated near Burton on Trent in Derbyshire, Pingle Academy is a co-educational, comprehensive, secondary school for students aged 11-18 years in an area where 85% of students live in POLAR1 or POLAR2 postcodes – where the smallest proportion of students go on to higher education. There are 150 students on roll in Years 12 and 13.

During Access Champions training we ask schools to look at how they currently help students to apply to HE, and to set objectives for ways to improve the systems in their school.

After the first workshop, Jo prioritised changing Pingle’s approach to personal statements and references, appointing a link governor for Sixth Form progression, and incorporating OSCAR, our online support platform, into the school’s programme for Years 12 and 13.

At Access Champions events, Jo has used the opportunity to share and compare practice with other schools that have high numbers of POLAR1 cohorts.

Part of the programme involves one of our team of Progression Specialists visiting the school each half-term and holding mentoring sessions with a small group of specially selected students who would benefit most from one-to-one support. At Pingle the Progression Specialist also provided wrap-around support including guidance on Pharmacy interviews.

After the first round of UCAS applications closed in January, Jo told us that training subject teachers and using OSCAR, which provides structure and guidance for students when writing their personal statements, has “vastly improved” reference writing, and that offer rates have been “phenomenal”, with “only a handful” of rejections across all subjects.

Access Champions is about embedding this change in school systems to produce long-term systemic change. With a focus on data, Jo plans to target an increase in Pingle’s overall progression rate from 71% to 78%.

We're delighted to be working with Pingle, and are looking forward to seeing the difference these changes make over the coming months.

Announcing our Partnerships for Change conference

Julie Randles, our CEO, writes about the thought behind our first ever Causeway conference, titled Partnerships for Change, as we open general registration.

It’s no great revelation to say that schools and colleges are key agents in improving access to Higher Education. But how best to do this is a much harder question entirely.

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We’ve been looking at existing models of engaging with schools: typically one-off events or resources and Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG). 

We’ve also been looking at the evidence, which suggests that these kind of activity- and event-based interventions are not successful (Teacher Development Trust, 2015), and that Information, Advice and Guidance can be routinely missed or misinterpreted (“Making a Statement”, HEAN & Steven Jones, 2016).

Add in the fact that current government priorities suggest there will be a new focus on universities and HE providers supporting schools and colleges, particularly in raising attainment, and it becomes clear that partnerships – between schools, universities, and the third sector – are becoming increasingly important to successful widening participation and to making a real difference to young people’s lives.

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So our conference will focus on one central question: how can universities, schools and third sector organisations work together to ensure the best outcomes for students and their teachers?

We’ll look at the best strategies for engaging with schools to improve progression to Higher Education and discuss the latest thinking about how to support schools and colleges to make strategic system-based changes in the ways they support students. 

And we’ll present new models for supporting exactly this kind of system-change in schools and colleges, including findings from our Access Champions programme, which we’re developing as part of HEFCE’s National Collaborative Outreach Programme with universities and schools in Bristol, Hampshire, East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and with the Sutton Trust in the West Midlands and Hertfordshire.

The day will include keynote speeches from Professor Lord Winston and MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis, both great supporters of fair access to education for all.

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We’ll also be joined by Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, and Natalie Perera, one of our Trustees and Head of Research at the Education Policy Institute, who will be chairing our panel discussion on “Working in partnership in the field”. 

Confirmed panellists include:

In the afternoon there’s the opportunity to join our participatory workshops, where we hope you’ll gain insight and knowledge from colleagues from across the widening participation sector.

It’s a fascinating topic and a hugely exciting line-up.

How to register

Tickets are free but registration is necessary to secure a place. Places are limited, so we encourage you to register to secure your place as soon as possible.

Essential Information

Date and Time: Tuesday April 24th 2018, 10:00-16:45
Venue: Auditorium, Allen & Overy, Bishops Square, E1 6AD

You can read more about the conference, including more details of the programme as we announce it, at www.causeway.education/conference.

We’re very grateful to Allen and Overy for their support in hosting the conference.

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We hope to see you there!

The thought behind: Access Champions

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Dr Michael Englard, our Director of Research and policy, and one of the co-founders of Causeway Education, explains the thought behind our Access Champions programme.

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If you had a million pounds to improve the chances of bright students going to top universities, how would you start? As a keen empiricist, your first step might be to review the evidence. As a firm believer in making a difference, your next step might be to design a programme for disadvantaged students. Who could argue with your approach: analyse the evidence to find what works, then design a programme targeted at the students who need it most? 

But as many who work in Widening Participation might agree: what appears obvious rarely is. This is a curious story where dead-set certainties seem to melt away. 

This story began because, as teachers and academics, we knew that the transition from school to university was fraught with snares, misunderstandings, and unrealised aspirations. Some of the problems seen in Widening Participation are clearly structural and, to some degree, intractable without deep-seated changes in how we engage students, and their parents, from a young age and ensure they have an excellent education. 

But not all Widening Participation issues are impossible to solve.

In 2013, Professor Vikki Boliver at Durham University looked at ten years’ worth of UCAS data and showed that, even when state and privately educated students got exactly the same grades, state school applicants were up to a third less likely to get an offer from a leading university. Since then, strong evidence has pointed towards student attainment – which we might consider a structural problem – being the biggest key to increasing participation. But even with excellent grades state school students were not always getting the offers they deserved. 

Aside from grades, we felt that the most obvious place to start was improving the quality of applications made by disadvantaged students. There was some fine research in the area, not least from Dr Steven Jones and the Sutton Trust. Dr Jones had shown that there were big disparities in the quality of personal statements written by students in the private and state sectors. 

What, you might think, would be the point of working on personal statements? There are reams of information in the public domain and virtually every university offers sessions on writing. Looking more deeply, though, it seems that most information takes the form of guidelines that are easy to misinterpret and one-off events that don’t always have a bearing on the final product.

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UCAS’ main guideline to students is “try to stand out” But how does an eighteen year old interpret this? In the final line of their personal statement, one finance applicant in Dr Jones’ study concluded with the memorable line “I want to study business and I mean business” – perfect for standing out in The Apprentice boardroom but utterly inappropriate for a personal statement. 

Working with the Sutton Trust, we developed our first programme, the Academic Apprenticeship, which focused on getting disadvantaged students to boost their personal statements by going into detail about an academic topic of interest that really appealed to them. 

Rather than saying how much they wanted to study Law, for instance, we encouraged students to research a particular case. We reasoned that getting disadvantaged applicants to show rather than state their enthusiasm for a subject could compensate for the inequalities in the quality of work experience and extra-curricular placements Dr Jones had identified. We paired students with online mentors and got them to follow subject-specific pathways.

We wanted the evaluation to be as rigorous as possible and set up participation and comparison groups. Students in both groups had attended a Sutton Trust Summer School, which meant they shared a similar academic profile and motivation. To ensure the scheme benefited applicants who needed it most, students in the participation group went to lower progression schools than those in the comparison group. In the end, UCAS data showed that 100% of students in the participation group got at least one offer from a Russell Group university compared to 73% in the comparison group.

Getting every student a Russell Group offer sounded like a huge success, but we had inadvertently discovered a different problem: when the students went back to school in September, they reported that many of their teachers had strongly advised them to remove the academic topic of interest which had been the key part of the programme. 

To see how widespread this was, we worked with Dr Jones and asked academics and teachers to ‘mark’ the same set of personal statements. The results were striking: teachers and academics agreed in only 23% of cases. Teachers found the valuable topic of interest “too long”, “essay-like” and “impersonal”. 

From this point on, our major focus has been to train senior teachers to lead change in their schools and colleges. 

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Hence our new programme: Access Champions. It’s an intensive two-year programme that concentrates on improving the systems schools and colleges use to support their students. Reviewing the evidence and using an approach based on the excellent Gatsby Benchmarks, Access Champions charts progress in six key areas, from using destinations data to co-ordinating encounters with Higher Education. 

Currently in progress across England, the programme is showing good signs of success. 

So, if you won the lottery and decided to spend some of the money on improving access to higher education, would you necessarily start by working with students?