“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!

“As a teacher with 25 years' experience, the programme has been a revelation”

As we begin the next round of training days for our Access Champions schools, we caught up with one Access Champion to find out what difference the programme has made to the way she helps prepare students for applying to higher education.

Teresa Lamb is the Head of Sixth Form and Access Champion at Brimsham Green School, situated in a new town ten miles outside Bristol. It’s part of a consortium with two other schools in South Gloucestershire and there are around 140 students on the roll in Years 12 and 13. Roughly half of students progress to higher education each year.

One of the first things we help Access Champions with is an assessment of the current situation in school, using our benchmarks to identify areas where provision can be improved. During this assessment, Teresa prioritised:

  1. Running staff CPD across the three schools in the consortium.
  2. Reducing workload on senior staff by sharing good practice and strengthening systems for writing references using OSCAR.
  3. Changing provision for parents on HE progression and bringing forward the school’s HE information evening.

Having identified areas for improvement, our Access Champions get support to put together a development plan that outlines the steps to take to make the changes necessary.

At the end of the first year of the programme, Teresa told us that tutors now feel “empowered” and are able to focus on the emphasising a student’s academic suitability and skills when writing references.

Having used OSCAR, our online platform that provides guidance on how to write an outstanding personal statement and structures the personal statement writing process for students, Teresa’s found that this year’s UCAS applications had “the best personal statements [the school] has ever sent off”, with students having to complete fewer drafts.

Some students at Brimsham have also been paired up with one of our Progression Specialists, who provides each of them with a course of one-to-one mentoring sessions aimed at helping them choose the best approach to HE and providing support with the application process. After those sessions parents have been “hugely positive” in their feedback.

Over the next year, Teresa plans to champion a whole-school approach to HE progression, focusing on working with students before they start Year 12.

We’re really looking forward to working with Teresa to see how those improvements make a difference to the students who are about to start their exams this year.

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!